Fake news handed Brexiteers the referendum – and now they have no idea what they're doing

'Would we have won without immigration? No. Would we have won without...the NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests no. Would we have won by spending our time talking about trade and the single market? No way'

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 18 January 2017 17:32 GMT
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson during the Vote Leave campaign
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson during the Vote Leave campaign

There was something fitting about Michael Gove meeting Donald Trump, only the second British politician to do so since his election victory after Nigel Farage. Gove entered what he called the “looking-glass world” of Trump Tower to interview the President-elect for The Times newspaper. Like Farage, he got his ticket to Trump’s man cave as one of the architects of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

The parallels between Trump’s sensational victory and the vote for Brexit have been well-documented and slightly overcooked. You can’t always read across the Atlantic. What the two earthquakes did have in common was the way they were secured in what has been dubbed the era of “post-truth politics” based on appeals to emotion rather than policies and facts.

Its proponents try to turn the tables on their critics. So Trump accused CNN of peddling “fake news” when it ran the sensational allegations that Russia has damaging information on him. Claims that the pope and Denzel Washington endorsed Trump were “fake” but can’t be blamed on Trump’s campaign. Some of his claims about migrants are probably better described as “false news”, which has always been with us but has got worse in the digital age.

Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster can be described as a “fake” since it showed a queue of migrants at the Croatia-Slovenia border, not trying to get into Britain. It was denounced by Vote Leave, the campaign led by Boris Johnson and Gove, but it was happy to join Farage’s rival Out campaign in playing the immigration card.

Vote Leave was certainly on the border between false and fake news. One of its posters claimed: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU.” Penny Mordaunt, a Defence Minister, claimed the Government would not be able to stop Turkish criminals entering the UK or to veto Turkey’s EU accession (the latter a downright lie). Gove warned that up to five million more EU migrants could come to Britain by 2030 because 88 million people would be granted the right to live and work here under EU plans to allow Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey to join it.

The Brexit-supporting press provided invaluable back-up with a stream of negative stories about EU migration. Vote Leave gave cover to Farage, who would not have won the referendum without the veneer of respectability provided by Johnson and Gove. The campaign on immigration by politicians and the press was the real “Project Fear”, the name given by Leavers to warnings about the economic risks of quitting the EU by Remain and the “experts” derided by Gove.

The ultimate piece of fake news was the claim that leaving would provide a £350m-a-week bonus for the NHS from the UK’s contribution to EU coffers. This was emblazoned on the side of the “Boris Battlebus”, cynically painted red to appeal to Labour voters. Fortunately, it cannot be airbrushed out of history and I am sure the image will re-emerge when the voters try to cash in their “NHS Brexit dividend.” How the health service and social care could do with £350m a week now. It’s never going to happen.

Jeremy Corbyn attacks "Irony Lady" Theresa May over Brexit

Why does this matter now? Brexiteers claim that Theresa May has a mandate to take Britain out of the single European market, as she confirmed on Tuesday. Although some Outers said in media interviews during the campaign that quitting the EU would mean leaving the single market, it barely featured. As Dominic Cummings, who was Vote Leave’s campaign director and a long-standing Gove adviser, admitted last week: “Would we have won without immigration? No. Would we have won without...the NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests no. Would we have won by spending our time talking about trade and the single market? No way.”

In a 20,000-word piece on the campaign, Cummings said: “By 2015, the EU was blamed substantially for the immigration/asylum crisis and this was entangled with years of news stories about ‘European courts’ limiting action against terrorists and criminals. Actually often these stories concerned the Strasbourg court of the ECHR” [European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU institution like the European Court of Justice].

Many of those in the Leave camp never really thought they had a chance of winning. One worrying trend in the new world is that stretching the truth can be seen as just part of a game. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Sarah Vine, Gove’s wife, told him after his team won the referendum. One leading Leave campaigner told me: “I never thought we would win. We thought, let’s give it a go, do our best, have some fun, throw a few rocks and see what happens.”

It may yet prove a costly game for the British people. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the Brexit press; as if they still can’t believe they have won, Europhobic newspapers and hardline Brexiteers re-run the campaign. Those who call for a soft Brexit are denounced as “Bitter Remoaners” who want to obstruct the “will of the people” expressed in the referendum. May joined in by attacking people who want to “subvert democracy.” At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, she made clear that Parliamentary scrutiny of her Brexit strategy will be strictly limited. There will be no White Paper, and clarity will provided “at appropriate times” – in other words, whenever she chooses to. So much for Brexit restoring the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.

In another sign of the post-truth world, every piece of good economic news is magnified by much of the press as a post-Brexit bounce, while less favourable statistics are played down. Remarkably, the Office of Budget Responsibility’s £59bn price tag on Brexit was a one-day wonder.

It is true that the warnings of an immediate hit to the economy have not materialised. Reading the Brexit press, you would think this is because the Remain camp’s Project Fear was based on a lie. It accuses Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, of “eating humble pie” by admitting that the economy is doing better than expected. It never mentions his statements that this might have something to do with the Bank’s emergency measures after the referendum.

The Brexit press will give an easy headline to reports predicting that leaving the customs union could create 400,000 jobs through new trade deals. How can anyone guarantee that? Are they not living in a fool’s paradise?

The soaring FTSE index is seen as another triumph for Brexit, and garners more headlines than the fall in the value of sterling, which is hardly a good advert for UK plc. Many economists have not changed their view that Brexit will inflict long-term damage, a view that will harden now that we are heading out of the single market.

In the neverendum campaign, Brexiteers cast anyone sounding a cautious note about the economy – including the Chancellor Philip Hammond – in the role of Eeyore. May blamed journalists for the fall in sterling when they (accurately) predicted her single market announcement. Her aides criticise as “unpatriotic” journalists who write “hyped up media reports” (in other words, ones they don’t like). Not quite Trump’s “fake news” attack, but not far off.

For now, consumer spending keeps the wheels turning, but a big squeeze on living standards is coming. The fall in the pound will push up inflation, possibly to 3 per cent; as food, fuel and energy prices rise, pay increases will not keep pace. Many of those most feeling the pinch will have voted for Brexit and be among the group that May is championing – the “just about managing” families.

I voted Remain but that doesn't make me a Remoaner. I believe a soft Brexit would inflict less damage to the economy than the version we seem to be heading towards. I really fear the long-term economic consequences of this leap in the dark. For the first time in my life, I hope I am proved wrong.

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