The Vote Leave campaign was without doubt the most cynical, opportunistic and dishonest political operation of my lifetime. The sickly concoction of invented statistics, warped facts and impossible promises was enough to make anyone feel queasy. Tragically, they won the referendum. But all that means is that pro-Europeans should redouble their efforts to hold these Leavers to account.
As a passionate campaigner for Britain’s place in Europe, I, like all readers of this newspaper, am deeply disappointed by the result. On our next steps, I know there is passionate debate amongst pro-Europeans on whether we should accept the result and push for the best Brexit deal possible, or agitate immediately for a second referendum. But whatever our views, we must all be able to unite around the idea of holding the Leavers to account for the promises they made during the referendum.
This matters because Vote Leave was not simply a transient political campaign. It set itself up as an alternative government. With just a few weeks to go before the referendum, Chris Grayling fronted what amounted to an alternative Queen’s Speech, with Vote Leave outlining bills they would pass if Britain left the EU, and setting out a timetable for Brexit. And now, senior Leavers are operating at the highest levels of government. The three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – are in charge of negotiating our exit from the European Union. Vital areas of government policy like the environment, agriculture, transport and international development are in the hands of Leave campaigners, including Mr Grayling. And while the Prime Minister campaigned grudgingly for Remain, her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ government will be dancing to Vote Leave’s tune.
Because the senior Leavers are now in such positions of power, the pledges they made during the campaign still matter. After all, they are now in a position to carry them out. So what were the main promises and assurances they made during the referendum?
Firstly, the big red lie on the big red bus – the Leave campaigns’ commitment to spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS. No matter that our net contribution to the EU budget is far lower than that, and that the £350 million figure was described by the UK Statistics Authority as ‘misleading’. With the new government having been in place for some time now, one would expect them to be drawing up plans to find and then direct this wonderful new funding stream towards new hospitals, social care, mental health provision, or anything else.
Not a bit of it. Indeed last month, the BBC revealed that NHS trusts across England have been instructed to draw up plans for cuts. These plans show that wards and accident and emergency departments from Cornwall to Carlisle face cuts. Clearly, this pledge was not worth the paper it was written on.
Many of Vote Leave’s promises took the form of blithe assurances that, while everything would change upon Brexit, nothing would also change. Of course the UK could continue to have free access to the European Single Market while simultaneously restricting the free movement of people. Of course British workers would not lose the rights delivered to them by EU law. Of course EU citizens currently resident in the UK would have the indefinite right to remain here.
Not one of these promises has yet been kept. All the smoke signals from Downing Street suggest that the government will aim for a trade deal with the European Union similar to Canada’s – that is, completely outside the Single Market. When I wrote to Theresa May recently calling on her to guarantee that the government will pass legislation to replace EU laws on workers’ rights, she refused to respond. And shamefully, millions of EU citizens in our country are living in a climate of fear, with the government still failing to make clear that they will be allowed to stay. I hope the government will rectify all of these matters; I am not holding my breath.
We all remember Vote Leave’s hysterical response to expert warnings of the economic consequences of Brexit. Every prediction made by economic experts, trades unions and even the Bank of England were dismissed as ‘scaremongering’. Great British businesspeople worried about the impact of Brexit on trade and jobs were ‘talking Britain down’. And respected think tanks like the Institute for Fiscal Studies were apparently tainted by having done work in exchange for payment by the European institutions.
So how do these expert warnings stand, more than two months after the vote to leave? In many cases it is too soon to tell. But generally, all the economic data is suggesting that the vote to leave has damaged our economy. The pound has fallen to its lowest value against the dollar since the 1980s. This will make imports more expensive, push up prices in the shops and therefore increase the rate of inflation. Surveys of businesspeople and consumers alike show confidence collapsing to levels last seen during the Great Recession of 2008-09. And the Bank of England has slashed our growth forecast for next year from a healthy 2.3% to a sclerotic 0.8%. Quite obviously, ‘Project Fear’ was really ‘Project Fact’.
Vote Leave made masses of promises, and it is impossible to go into detail on all of them. But needless to say, we have seen nothing of government plans to scrap VAT on household energy bills, continue co-operation with the EU on security, or increase spending on science.
Pointing this out is absolutely not sour grapes. It is also not futile. By ruthlessly exposing the gap between Vote Leave’s promises and the cold reality of Brexit, pro-Europeans can shape the debate about Europe that will rage for years to come. We can help make people realise the benefits of closeness and co-operation with our European neighbours. In doing so, we can minimise the damage of the referendum vote, and fight for a future Britain which is open, optimistic, and proudly part of Europe.
• Chuka Umunna is a Labour MP and the Chair of Vote Leave Watch