On 23rd March, Boris Johnson was interviewed by the Treasury Select Committee, chaired by Andrew Tyrie (See: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/treasury-committee/news-parliament-2015/eu-referendum-evidence-15-16/ ). I did not watch it all, but quite a few things stood out:
- Boris fumbled on most questions. His answers were generally woolly, inconsistent and delusional. Nonetheless he refused to accept that he was wrong on anything. The “Gish Gallop” debating style may fool TV interviewers or go down well on talk shows but does not work in the more forensic examination of a Select Committee.
- On EU rules (“bans” on children under 8 blowing up balloons, bans on recycling tea bags, and rules on coffins) he appeared to accept that the EU rules did not do as he said, but the very existence of them, in his view, was an affront and led to UK law makers “gold plating” them. He did not appear to think, for example, that child safety warnings on toys served any sensible purpose (maybe he should spend longer in the USA!). Does he think that removing child safety warnings from UK made toys would enhance their marketability either here or elsewhere? Given there is an EU labeling requirement for this and many other product safety requirements, no responsible producer or retailer would risk the litigation that might ensue from marketing products that did not conform and an injury results. However, even if these rules were true, it’s hardly the actions of a tyrannical dictatorship. Had Hitler and Stalin restricted themselves to imposing rules on toys, oven gloves, tea bags etc the world would probably be a much better place!
- He talked about the benefits of BrExit being we could ditch whole swathes of EU rules whilst not being specific about what rules he would ditch nor on whether a country that did not adhere to them could trade with the EU.
- He cited the Y2K Bug as a predicted crisis that did not happen to counter the predictions of economic doom after BrExit. I worked for a major IT company (IBM) during the 1990s and I can assure him that the Y2K bug was very real. Had IT companies and their customers (especially those based on mainframe and mini-computer technologies from the 1980s and earlier) not expended enormous effort to fix, then there would have been chaos. One can debate whether too much was spent, but the reason there wasn’t a crisis was because it was avoided, not because the predictions [if we did nothing] were wrong. Bear in mind that consumer adoption of PCs was still immature and they had few, if any, business critical applications that would be affected – unlike Banks, retailers, insurers etc that ran their businesses on complex IT infrastructures (Surprisingly Windows 95 was not Y2K compliant!).
- He cited the predictions made that not joining the Euro would lead to economic problems. Not being in the Euro did not and does not (and subject to Cameron’s renegotiations shouldn’t ever) impede access to the EU Single Market. BrExit does.
- Even if 4 and 5 had some merit, if the argument is one of “The Boy who cried Wolf”, one must bear in mind that in that story, the wolf did finally come.
- Boris could not be pinned down on what alternative to EU membership he proposed. His arguments on a Free Trade deal like Canada fell apart (even if he doesn’t accept that). He didn’t advocate a deal like Norway, Iceland or Switzerland (though did mention them). He thought the EU would fall over itself to negotiate a deal in which the UK keeps all the good bits of EU membership without any of the obligations. He argued the EU would be foolish to do anything else. That may well be so, but the EU would argue that the UK would be foolish to leave the EU in the first place and lose its privileged position within it. It is a terrible negotiating strategy to think you know what’s best for the other parties in a negotiation and that they will see things your way. Moreover, even if all EU governments are “falling over themselves” to make a deal, that doesn’t mean their electorates would approve them in any referendums as the recent Dutch referendum on Ukraine showed. The idea that a largely emotional decision to leave would not be met by an emotional response from EU countries, as well as Scotland, is bizarre. How many (mainly) men voluntarily walking out on their wives think they will get an advantageous divorce settlement because “she’d be foolish to ask for anything else”? How many get disappointed, even humiliated, afterwards? One could take the analogy further. The EU has been struggling with potentially existential crises: the Eurozone and now the migration crisis (and terrorism). The UK renegotiations have been a distraction it could have done without. Wouldn’t BrExit be like a man leaving his wife when she’s just recovering from a chronic illness that may recur? It might be the most rational thing to do for the wife to agree to a quick and beneficial (to him) settlement but does anyone seriously think that’s likely? Leading Brexiter Richard North certainly doesn’t think so.
- The idea that the same imperatives that would compel the EU to quickly close an advantageous deal with the UK if we were outside the EU didn’t compel it to make an attractive deal with us inside the EU simply don’t add up.
- His response to the argument that Schauble had ruled out Single Market membership without a contribution to the budget, adherence to the rules and acceptance of free movement, was a classic deflection strategy of attributing the Eurozone problems to Schauble (with the implication that you can’t trust a man like that).
- Boris waxed lyrical about the savings from the EU contributions. Yet when pinned down on matters such as farming subsidies could not actually quantify what the savings would be. When reminded that Norway’s farming exports to the EU are subject to tariffs, he resorted to the “they’d be foolish to do that to us” tactic. Maybe, but at this point we have no idea what deal the EU might offer as Leave haven’t told us what they would ask for (apart from all the current rights without any of the obligations).
- Boris talked about the democratic deficit in the EU but prescribed no solution. His whole argument seemed to be that BrExit would be a wakeup call to the EU to reform itself and if it didn’t BrExit would mean we were insulated from it.
All in all, further evidence of the delusional nature of the Leave campaign in general and of Boris in particular. The basic message is “it’ll be alright, trust us”. That really isn’t good enough. His performance highlighted the chaos within Leave.
Below is a more detailed exploration of the issues: