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Found: The one person in Britain who thinks Brexit is working

It’s Lord David Frost, but not surprisingly his sixth anniversary speech is long on blather and short on evidence

David Frost in central London at the height of negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, in October 2020. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The opening sentence of David Frost’s speech told the whole story: is Brexit working? 

To which the only honest reply more than two years after the UK left the EU must be: Well, if you have to ask the question, Lord Frost …

Apparently unfazed by the uncomfortable truth implicit in that weak opener, Frost gamely galloped to a shocking conclusion – yes, it is working – just seconds later and then spent the rest of his time trying to shoehorn the facts into a particularly tight fairytale glass slipper. 

That’s when he used facts. Because the most notable thing about his speech to the annual conference of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank was how few statistics he had to back up that early-doors conclusion. You’d think he’d have found a whole raft of them. It’s not like the anniversary or the speech could have crept up on him.

But hey, maybe he was called into action at the last minute because someone had to cancel suddenly on account of a hastily arranged trip abroad, to say Kyiv, or Kigali. It can happen. 

In any case, Frost decided that the way to go was to focus the rest of his speech on (re)moaning about the dodgy data used by all those axe-grinding Remainiacs controlling all of the UK’s statistics. It’s funny how the boffins all hate Brexit. 

Before taking deadly aim at the biased data though, Frost went “big-picture”.

“First, and crucially, Brexit is fundamentally about democracy. It’s about ensuring decisions for this country are taken in this country after proper debate.  That is now beginning to happen.”

Even the-man-with-the-Union-Jack-socks can only bring himself to say it is beginning to happen. It’s ironic – if not tragic – to see one of the architects of the greatest act of political gaslighting in recent memory expounding on the need for proper debate. 

It also rings a little hollow in a country where all debates – proper and improper – have recently been dominated by how many bottles of wine one can fit into a small suitcase and how exactly to define a party (is it the cake, the karaoke machine or do you need to call in the CSI to use their infra-red magic sticks to detect red wine and vomit splatter before you can make a ruling?)

Frost did admit, reluctantly, that Brexit is not done, although he followed that rare display of self-awareness with the brassed-neck exhortation to complete the process and follow through on something he called “its logic”. Not sure he’s best placed to talk about logic when his speech also contained this gem: “Democracy counts.  Brexit automatically delivers democracy.  So it is working.”

With his incisive, eye-in-the-sky analysis out of the way, Frost turned on the numbers – or what he called the “noise around at the moment”, saying that the view that Brexit “is hitting us from an economic and trade perspective is generated by those with an axe to grind and cannot be supported by any objective analysis of the figures.”

If one might be so bold, that’s not quite right, is it? 

If only Frost had come to the The New European while writing his speech because we were busy writing too – and we found a lot of clever people had done a lot of objective analysis to come to exactly the opposite conclusion, even after taking into account the deleterious effects of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. 

Check out the full article here but as a little reminder:

  • The OECD says UK growth will be worse than any other G20 country, except Russia, next year. And the Bank of England expects a recession coupled with wage inflation because of the shortage of workers caused by Brexit.
  • Taxes have been raised to their highest share of GDP since the 1960s 
  • Brexit has cost the public finances around £30bn
  • Migration is higher: 672,266 migrants were granted study or work visas in 2021 – an increase of over 40% on 2019.
  • And new analysis by the Centre for European Reform (CER) shows the economy is more than 5% smaller than it would have been if the UK had not left the EU – that’s £31bn worse off. 

Frost did actually mention that last study, produced by John Springford, CER’s deputy director, but only to try to knock it down. 

“As for GDP, the study produced by the CER again last month has had a lot of attention.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe its “Doppelgänger” methodology is particularly sound or a reliable basis on which to draw conclusions,” Frost said, adding that “the fact that it changes the doppelgänger group for different purposes in the study (and has changed it compared to the previous version) makes one doubtful about its predictive powers.”

Not so fast, Frost. Springford replied on Twitter, reeling out some seriously annoying actual facts and noting that he didn’t change the doppelgänger group in different versions but that the doppelgänger countries are chosen by an algorithm. And he said much more besides, before coming to the conclusion that “I don’t think Lord Frost’s claim that Brexit has had no impact on GDP … has much basis in the data.”

Ouch. And then Springford poured salt in the wound by using some pesky informative graphs. And we all know that they definitely have an axis to grind. 

Frost did give the nod to one piece of data: recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that goods exports to the EU had risen for a third consecutive month in April and were at their highest level since comparable records began. However, he didn’t feel the need to quote the analysts who say this is primarily due to the UK importing reserves of liquefied natural gas from countries like Qatar to fill storage sites in Europe. 

“This unprecedented importing and exporting of fuels is to support Europe through the next winter given the uncertainty around fuel supplies from Russia because of the ongoing war in Ukraine,” Jack Sirett, head of dealing at Ebury, told City A.M. Sirett also said regular business insights survey continued to show challenging circumstances for businesses trading internationally, particularly with the EU. I guess that just couldn’t be squeezed into the glass slipper.

In a rare moment of candour, Frost, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland protocol, acknowledged that when he and his team came up with that answer to the seemingly unsolvable problem of how to leave the EU’s single market without creating a hard land border on the island of Ireland they recognised “that we were running high levels of risk”.

But the fact that, as he sees it, the protocol doesn’t work – or to use his own words ‘has come apart much more quickly than most of us thought’ – is, of course, the fault of the EU. 

Frost’s illogical pièce de résistance had to be his closing argument that the UK was hamstrung because being in the EU had robbed it of its ability to make decisions.

“In my view one of the harmful effects of EU membership was that it gradually deprived our policy-makers, politicians and civil servants alike, of agency,” he said. “It fostered a belief, not always or even often acknowledged, that we were not capable of solving our own problems on our own.  Every policy initiative had to be Brussels-proofed because of the reach of the principles of EU law, non-discrimination and so on. “

It’s a crying shame for us axe-grinders that that whole crippling self-doubt thing didn’t really show up when the Tory government decided to call a referendum.

Frost’s conclusion?

“I believe we can see the effects now we have left.  Our policy elites have lost the habit of defining goals, creating strategies to deliver them, and crafting policies that support the strategies.  They have found it very difficult to draw up genuine proposals for liberalisation and change of policy regimes now that we have left, even on pieces of legislation that we opposed when we were members.”

And there it is. At last, the truth at the heart of it all. 

“It is as if we have forgotten how to govern,” he opined. 

And on that note of consensus, we may perhaps leave it. On the anniversary of the desperate division that is Brexit, something all sides seem to agree on.

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