It’s time for politicians who campaigned for Brexit to admit they were wrong

In most walks of life when people make mistakes, they generally have to admit to them, but not in politics it seems. If a press release goes out with the wrong data, a correction is quickly issued; corrections to factual errors are regularly printed in newspapers. But we’ve had no apologies from anyone about the current Brexit shambles.

Well, it’s high time the politicians who led us down the garden path on Brexit owned up to their mistakes. Their claims were false, their facts were wrong and many of their predictions were wildly inaccurate. People are weary of the ‘£350m a week for the NHS on the side of the bus’ example, but it encapsulates all the naïve, jingoistic and unresearched claims made by the Brexiteers. Liam Brexit said that achieving the Brexit deal would be “the easiest thing in human history.” Oh really?

Little concessions to the truth are coming out here and there: for example, last week Michael Gove admitted the ‘grim, inescapable’ reality facing farmers under a no-deal Brexit. But with the Department of Health ordering fridges to stockpile medicines at great expense, and the Department of Transport signing a contract with Seaborne (a sea freight company with no ships) to take goods in and out of ports other than Dover to relieve lorry congestion, it is clear that any so-called ‘Brexit dividend’ is fast disappearing.

In the meantime, have we had any apologies from the proponents of Brexit for the damage caused to the UK’s standing in the world, the falsehoods, the dodgy campaign funding by some in the Brexit camp, or the tactless “jump the queue” comments? Not a bit of it. It took the Lib Dems a long time to apologise for the tuition fees debacle and we all know what happened. Tony Blair has never really apologised for taking the UK into the Iraq War either, despite the conclusions of the Chilcot Inquiry. Don’t get me wrong, it must be difficult to always make the right political calls, but when serious errors are made in politics, they should be acknowledged as generally happens in other areas of public life, the NHS for example.  Matters should also be put right where possible: we still have the chance to do that with Brexit.

It must be hard for Theresa May to admit that the last two years has probably been a waste of time – all that slog and effort. But if you dig a trench in the wrong place, however deep you dig, it will never be in the right place. Going on and on regardless is unwise – and potentially dangerous. It feels like Brexit might soon be hitting the gas mains!

Adrian Chiles, the BBC radio presenter, recently went back to interview people in the West Midlands who he had spoken to right after the referendum in 2016, many of whom had voted Leave. The programme, broadcast on 1 January 2019, was called Brexit: Bewitched, Bothered or Bewildered. Most interviewees said they wished they had not voted Leave as they didn’t realise how complicated it would be and all the problems it would cause. Some sounded confused and disillusioned. Many were willing to admit that they might have got it wrong. It’s a shame our Government can’t do the same, instead of hiding behind the ‘will of the people’ rhetoric – which has now changed anyway, according to the opinion polls.

The trouble is, Brexit is not a simple mistake that can easily be rectified. It will be life-changing and almost certainly damaging to our economy and security. It is time the Brexiteers had the courage to admit they were wrong – if they really care about the future of this country.

* Until recently, Judy Abel was Head of Health Policy at Policy Connect.

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40 Comments

  • William Fowler 4th Jan '19 - 1:34pm

    As levels of incompetence upon incompetence becomes apparent, how in a democracy do the people vote for MP’s and top civil servants to have their salaries capped at 25k an their pensions at 12k?

  • Mick Taylor 4th Jan '19 - 1:38pm

    Right on Judy Abel

  • Graham Jeffs 4th Jan '19 - 3:47pm

    Well said!

  • My view remains that the chaos we are in is part of the Prime Miinister’s plan. Drag things out until the last minute and then leave the country with no option but to accept her plan.
    It really is time to start a campaign about the reality of the European Union. At least to put forward a case that at no time has the E.U. been unreasonable, but that they are puzzled how they can agree to all her suggestions, but still she says she is not happy.
    Am I missing something?

  • Judith Abel 4th Jan '19 - 7:45pm

    Thanks for the positive comments @Mick and @Graham. But will MPs who are against Brexit really cave in? What a horrible thought. The Whips must have been busy over Christmas! Labour have said they will vote against the deal so I tend to think we are facing a No Deal scenario. Might Theresa May then say, this is not what we promised the British people so we need another Referendum?

    Michael Gove has certainly sounded worried in the media this week – I think the penny is beginning to drop.

  • Graham Jeffs 4th Jan '19 - 8:13pm

    Michael Gove is reported to have indicated that Brexit can bring ‘certainty’. Certainty is something I can understand in terms of what would happen if I jumped off Beachy Head.

  • On Monday 7th Jan C4 will show Brexit: The Uncivil War which gives an insight into how Leave strategists won the referendum. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummins.

  • Judith Abel 4th Jan '19 - 8:37pm

    I’m certainly planning on watching that. It’s along way to go to 29 March though. Still all to play for – that’s why I rejoined the Lib Dems yesterday!

  • John Marriott 5th Jan '19 - 10:13am

    My money is still on Article 50 being ‘susponed’ *.

    * It’s a new verb I’ve invented, because I’m not sure what the correct verb is. Messrs Bourke and ‘Michael 1’ please advise.

  • Chris Jones 5th Jan '19 - 10:24am

    Very few politicians have the grace to admit to being wrong even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. You only have to read the comments in some of the national newspapers to see that the Brexiteers will find someone else, (A ‘Remoaner’ PM, Cabinet and Parliament, the EU, the Irish Government) for the failure of the Brexit project rather than the project’s obvious flaws. The real fault lies not with individuals who voted in an advisory referendum but with the institutions of government that have enabled a Prime Minister to pander to 60 to 80 ERG supporting MPs backed up by 125,000 paid up Conservative members (average age 72) in determining the future of our country for several generations with no proper checks and balances. The Liberal Democrats need to be thinking about what happens after Brexit. A reformed constitution that encourages government by consensus and recognises the rights of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom would be a good start.

  • Judith Abel 5th Jan '19 - 10:41am

    Ken Clark – always pragmatic and sensible on Brexit – suggested on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning that Article 50 should be revoked to Government more time to decide what to do. As a first step seems essential short-term fix until the mess can be sorted out.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '19 - 10:52am

    @ Judy Abel,

    These kind of “they should admit they were wrong” arguments are generally somewhat sterile and don’t lead anywhere. There are two major forces at work in the Brexit debate caused by:

    1) National Identity. The undeniable truth is that most Brits have never sufficiently embraced a European identity. Even most remainers don’t want the full extent of European ‘ever closer unionism’. We don’t want Schengen. We don’t want the euro. We don’t really want the European Parliament. We want laws to be made in Westminster.

    2) Economic Considerations. In other words: are we better off in or out? Maybe its worth ‘putting up’ with some of the EU, providing it’s not too much EU, in exchange for the economic benefits it may bring? This is the main Remainer argument. Or “Aren’t we lucky we have access to the single market but we don’t have to use the euro?”.

    These two factors will be weighted differently by everyone. Some will think it’s better to trade off national identity for economic gain. Others will take the opposite view.

    There’s no right and wrong in either position. We are all creatures of emotion when National identity is concerned.

    There’s also a degree of opinion involved too. My own is that the economic arguments for staying in are overstated. If we could go back to the old EEC I’d be for staying in. But the Treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon are steps too far and have created an unworkable structure. So, there is some scope for “right” and “wrong” but it all remains to be seen. I’m open to rational arguments on the nature of the EU but you’ll have to do better than just tell me I’m wrong!

  • @Chris – I agree with your analysis Chris, but that is why trust has been eroding away in our democracy and people are becoming cynical. We need to think about how to make normal rules of conduct and accountability apply to politics in the same way as they do in other areas of public life – even the private sector. The Head of Crossrail, Sir Terry Morgan, resigned recently because of the Crossrail delays and overspend.

    Of course, tt is not always possible to deliver on manifesto and campaign promises but then one needs to come clean and apologise.

  • Judith Abel 5th Jan '19 - 11:14am

    @ Peter As I point out in my article though, Liam Fox was wrong to say getting a Brexit deal would be easy and Boris was wrong to say there could be £350m for the NHS. The latter argument certainly swayed voters. It was a blatantly false claim.

    I think you are right that we were never really pro-EU as a country (I wrote a blog on that for LDV a few years ago!), but the geopolitical reality is that we will be politically isolated and economically vulnerable outside the EU. Those who will suffer the most will not be people like Lord Lawson who are already sorting out their EU residency rights.

  • Judith Abel – great piece.
    Peter Martin – what is wrong with Maarstricht and Lisbon? Just a straight dismissal of these treaties gives no indication of what you find wrong with them.
    I find most Leaver arguments lacking in any backup reasoning, other than I don’t like….blah, blah, blah. Which is very difficult to argue against.

  • John Marriott 5th Jan '19 - 12:02pm

    Of those politicians, who, in Judy Abel’s words, “campaigned for Brexit” the only one’s I would listen are those, who have stayed the course, like Fox and Gove. Most of the others, have basically washed their hands of the process and prefer to carp from the sidelines, like Davis, Johnson and Raab. Of those still remaining in the cabinet, most appear to be keeping a low profile, except for ‘Failing Grayling’, whose sheer incompetence makes any pronouncement he makes or action he takes of no significance in Brexit terms.

    As Judy says, it’s time to shine a light on the hypocrisy of people like Lord Nigel Lawson (resident of Gascony), Jacob Rees Mogg (moving assets to a Dublin) and (soon to be Sir) John Redwood (advising clients to invest in the EU), who are basically advising “do as I say, not do as I do”. Perhaps it really is time to go for the man and not the ball, which, I am sure, many LDV contributors will claim is not ‘the Liberal way’. Well, we tried the economic argument and that failed. How about the politics of envy? If you want to nail me down, I still reckon that a compromise ‘deal’ organised through parliament might just be the way out of this mess. However, it can’t be done by 29 March. Time to ‘suspone’?

    To return to the original argument, the two gentlemen who appear to have gone closest to the cliff edge are the first two I mentioned. Both appear to be back tracking like mad. Now, if either of them changed tack, and my money would be on Gove, whose ambitions for the top job have clearly not been extinguished, then that would, as they say, put the cat amongst the pigeons.

  • Thanks very much Andy! Just thought it needed to be said

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '19 - 12:27pm

    @ Andy Hyde,

    You ask ” what is wrong with Maastricht and Lisbon” ? ie the Treaties rather than the cities.

    These two treaties paved the way for what we now call the EU rather than what we had previously. ie The much more successful and workable EEC. Maastricht was probably the more significant in that it was mainly about the introduction of the euro.

    Sensibly we stayed out of that. We made the right decision for the what were the wrong reasons. Brown tests were just a political fudge. My mother had an equally valid reason for staying out. She wanted a pic of the Queen, and not Napoleon, on her banknotes! The idea of a single currency to be shared by all the EU countries (19 so far) is just a bad idea. Period. Unless like the Americans we have a single government to administer it.

    But staying out didn’t totally isolate us from the disaster of the eurozone. It consists of countries which are either semi depressed or highly mercantilistic. Either way they are a poor market for UK exports. So whereas we run a surplus with the ROW we are heavily in deficit with the EU. That has to be funded by someone in the UK borrowing which gives us a debt problem.

    The semi depressed economies of Europe naturally lead to highly asymmetric migration patterns. Presumably people don’t move to Manchester from Malaga because of better weather. This would probably be OK if our economy was struggling with debt and the induced austerity supposedly needed to cure the debt.

    Under such conditions, it can’t be much of a surprise that the EU wasn’t too popular in the UK.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/08/why-the-uk-trade-deficit-with-the-eu-is-woeful-and-widening

  • Peter Hirst 5th Jan '19 - 1:58pm

    I agree with your comments, Judy but there is a distinction between faulty decisions and faulty processes. You cannot expect politicians not to pursue their and their Party’s interests. Structures must be in place that provide constraints on their activities in the interests of serving the greater good. I am of course referring to a codified constitution that clearly delineates what is possible in pursing the above.

  • Bill le Breton 5th Jan '19 - 2:49pm

    Wise words from Peter Martin, especially “the eurozone … consists of countries which are either semi depressed or highly mercantilistic”.

    Robert Skidelsky the great biographer of Keynes has come forward with an idea: The Case for Compensated Free Trade (CFT) to cope with the mercantilistic tactics of China, Germany and Japan.

    https://robertskidelsky.com/2018/11/14/the-case-for-compensated-free-trade/

    “Under CFT,” he proposes, “a trade surplus country can reduce its exports to the set limit. But it could also exceed its export quota if its government paid the partner government a fine equal to the value of the excess exports, either collecting the necessary sum from its export producers or using its currency reserves.”

    Many of my long term objections to the Euro and to the EU in its latest form would dissolve if such a scheme were accepted. But until then the UK along with all the other deficit countries in the EU continuously place their head in a noose.

  • @Joseph If what you conclude in your last paragraph is correct then surely it is better for the UK to be in the EU than out

  • Pointing out the hypocrisy and stupidity of Brexiteer polticians isn’t play the man rather than the ball, it is a statement of the bloody obvious. If we shy away from stating the obvious because it might upset them, don’t be surprised if you lose the argument. Whimps seldom prosper and failing to hold Brexiteers to account, is a text book definition of whimpdom; be muscular Liberals or face being dismissal as “nice but very, very weak” and no one votes for that.

  • @Frankie. I was not trying to say Brexit politicians were stupid, rather that they got it badly wrong. They probably believed their own case (up to a point), but it is clear they did not understand the complexities of the EU and made wild, undeliverable promises. Yes, the Remainers may have got a few predictions wrong too to be fair, but the Brexiteers won, based on a jingoistic, populist campaign, and we are now in a mess.

    That’s why it is up to them to apologise for the last two years – all the time and money wasted when we should have been focussing on other important things such as the homelessness crisis and sorting out our transport system.

    If the Brexiteers said, I’m sorry we didn’t quite realise the complexity leaving the EU involved, we misjudged it; or we didn’t realise how much xenophobia would be caused by our campaign; or we didn’t realise there might be a No Deal posing a threat to British business, we might have more time for them.

    We currently have a tailor-made deal in the EU, no Euro, no Schengen, the level of integration we want (proving that the Eu can be flexible), but no one really bothered to point that out either.

  • Laurence Cox 5th Jan '19 - 6:00pm

    @Mike Read

    Will Gompertz’s review of Brexit: An Uncivil War has a YouTube video of Dominic Cummings talking about the Leave campaign at a behavioural science conference (Nudgestock 2017). This is well worth watching and I wonder how many people associated with the People’s Vote have seen it. There is no point in campaigning for a second referendum if we do not know how to win it and Cummings shows why we cannot win by simply appealing to people’s rationality.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-46741907

    Answering questions at the end, he admits that he expected Boris Johnson to be the next PM and Boris was absolutely definite about giving £350 million a week to the NHS. Unlike Clegg, he understood the importance of keeping promises made during a campaign (Cummings had identified loss of trust in elected politicians as a major issue, which is why ‘take back control’ was a key campaign message – not just from the EU but also from Westminster).

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '19 - 6:04pm

    @ Joe B,

    As usual, there’s far too many unsubstantiated statements. For example ” The economic rationale behind UK entry to the EEC is the 1970s has become stronger over-time not weaker” ignores the good progress made since the 1970s, first by the GATT, later the WTO, in liberalising world trade and reducing tariff and other barriers. Tariffs were much higher then, than they are now, and therefore the case for being a part of a ‘free trade bloc’ was stronger then than it is now.

    If the EU were truly a successful ‘free trade bloc’ it could still be worthwhile for the UK to be a member. But it isn’t. Essentially , almost by default, it has become a vehicle by which Germany can support an 8% of GDP trade surplus. As you point out, “EU trade with the rest of the world is relatively balanced” so where do the euros to support that surplus come from? They have to come from either the ECB or other EU countries including other euro using countries.

    Then the Germans wonder why the rest of the EU, including the UK, has a debt problem!

  • Joseph thanks for the figures. It’s a shame we can’t boost our manufacturing capacity to lower our dependence on EU imports, but EU membership doesn’t prevent that, only prohibits state subsidies I think.

  • Peter, if the EU is as bad as you suggest, why are Norway and Switzerland (both with very small populations), the only countries in Western Europe not in the EU? Are all these countries foolish and the UK so incredibly wise?

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '19 - 8:39pm

    @ Judy Abel,

    “if the EU is as bad as you suggest”

    I wouldn’t ask anyone to take my word for it.

    The idea of a European entity to bring the formerly warring European powers together in peace and harmony is a fine ideal. This is how most Remainers like to think the EU really is. Sadly, the aspiration doesn’t meet the reality. By far the biggest mistake has been the introduction of the single currency with only a central bank to support it.

    No economist of any note, at least so far as I am aware, has ever explained how a single currency can be successfully shared by a multitude of countries all with different democratically accountable governments. I can give you a long list of economists, including Nobel Prize winners on the left, like Joe Stiglitz, and on the right like Milton Friedman who warned against it. But as politicians are wont to do, they managed to convince themselves that it would work at least long enough for it to be someone else’s problem when it all collapsed.

    If I could add my own view, I might just say that the euro could just possibly work long enough for the EU to move to the next stage if only the Germans weren’t so insistent on economic austerity. Not much chance of that!

    This is Thomas Piketty getting rather cross with the Germans too!

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/german-conservatives-are-destroying-europe-with-austerity-says-economist-thomas-piketty-10368040.html

  • Judy,
    Not all Brexiteer polticians are idiots ( but given some of the raving of Moggs merry crew quite a lot are), some are deeply delusional, some value sovereignty over everything and some just saw Brexit as a stepping stone to greater things. Asking them to apologise is I’m afraid fanciful, they will never accept they are wrong, either because they are idiots, delusional, value sovereignty over all, or have tied themselves to Brexit to gain power. You only have to see our Brexit/Lexit posters all wedded to an implausible Brexit/Lexit future, whether it be a “my little village, away from the world, free of furrins”, a “Britania unchained Ayn Rand wet dream” or “Socialism in one country fantasia” to know rationality will fail to prick their fantasies until reality and probably a hard Brecit reality at that will ( even then they will wibble if only we hadn’t been betrayed, if only we had my precious Brexit).

  • Peter,
    It must have come as a terrible shock to you, when the idea dawned on you that the Euro might not fail. All those years proclaiming we must get away from the failing Euro, to now admit actually it might not. I know you place much faith on economics, but given how fast the laws change, how fast things that should not be occur (QE etc) I think your faith is misplaced. Economics too misquote Humpty
    When I use the word economics,” frankie said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

  • Peter,
    Thank you for the reply, many have responded to your comments who are probably far better qualified to.

  • Peter
    I would argue that the notion of Pan European Identity has been overplayed and has failed to take root pretty much throughout Europe, hence the idea of ever closer union is being quietly shovelled to the side-lines. Britain is not special. The main difference is that we were allowed to vote on the project late in the day and had not adapted to the Euro so have a degree of distance from the financial entanglement involved.

  • Peter Martin 6th Jan '19 - 11:15am

    @ JoeB

    “The UK is not in the Eurozone.”

    Thank you for your definitive wisdom on this point. Someone, somewhere, might be unaware of this!

    Brits are not obliged to borrow money and buy a German car or industrial equipment.

    This isn’t how it works. A net exporting country always accumulates more of its customer’s currency that it can spend. Let’s take Denmark, which also runs a 8% of GDP surplus, as an example to avoid the slight complication of the euro. We know Denmark uses the Krone. Right?

    If there were no currency manipulation going on, then the Krone would rise in value and trade would balance. But there is and and it doesn’t. Denmark has to run a capital account deficit to balance the current account surplus. This means that, in one way or another, it has to lend the surplus back to its customers by buying Capital items such as bonds from the customer’s Govt. This enables it to peg its currency at approx 7 Krone = 1 euro. So when we buy Danish bacon it doesn’t require us to put the bill on our credit card! We are attracted to the lower price that the bacon would otherwise be if the Danes didn’t manipulate their currency.

    The Germans say “Oh but we don’t do that. We have a floating currency called the euro.” So the euro does give them some fig leaf of respectability when the Americans complain of currency manipulation. But is what they are doing so different from the Danes? Many Germans still think in DM at an almost 2:1 ratio against the euro. The peg is still their but its hidden.

    They are both essentially playing the same way. They are gaming their economies to run unsustainable export surpluses by currency manipulation. In the process they are destroying the EU.

  • Judith Abel 6th Jan '19 - 4:07pm

    @Peter – a bit too complicated for me to get my head around! (although just FYI when I used to visit Denmark as a child – being half Danish – there were 20 Kroner to the £ and now there are only around 8.5 making Denmark very expensive to visit now).

    Thank you for all the comments on my article – I think we had a good debate. Meanwhile the unpredictable Brexit drama continues to unfold.

  • John Martin 6th Jan '19 - 10:55pm

    “Little Johnny Foreigner is never ever missed,”
    Said Trump in America and every nationalist.
    “Let the rich come in but keep the poor ones out.
    “We’ll raise a storm in media, a veritable shout.”
    Score out a “Sharing World” from the human shopping list.
    Fences flourish everywhere. (The rest of us — get pissed.)

  • Peter Martin 7th Jan '19 - 9:15am

    Hi Judy,

    When I hear a “its all too complicated” argument I do feel frustrated. I further feel that you and many others who have relied on Euro-economists and politicians to have known what they were doing when they set up the euro, which is an integral part of the EU, to have been badly let down. You, and many others, rightly assumed that whatever structure was being built was fit for purpose. But it isn’t. There is a good reason why everyone always had different currencies which could be allowed to vary against each other in value. No-one, not even the great and good of the EU, can just ignore them and expect everything to work as before.

    It’s even more annoying to be accused of siding with people like Trump and Farage and being, as my namesake puts it above, being simply against “Johnny Foreigner” whenever anyone points out the disaster of the eurozone. The sensible approach for the UK is to put as much administrative distance as possible from it all. It’s nothing to do with being ‘anti-European’ or wanting to turn the clock back.

    I’m not sure if it’s too late, but the argument that the euro’s problems aren’t primarily due to Greek laziness, Italian corruption, irresponsible populist politicians etc, (which I would have thought should appeal to Lib Dems), are well made in various sources. I’d encourage anyone interested in the EU to at least try to understand what many have been saying for decades now.

    I’d recommend this account by Joseph Stiglitz.

    https://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?id=4294993557

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