EXCLUSIVE: Former Vote Leave Chief explains why Brexit remains on track

Last year’s Brexit vote was, I think, the closest thing the British centre-right has produced to a revolution in the modern era. Thatcher’s economic programme was certainly radical, but its influence over certain policy areas was strictly limited. Brexit, by contrast, looks set to have a dramatic influence over just about every region of Government activity. For better or worse, this is the consequence of leaving an organisation which has a significance influence over, and in some areas virtually controls, British Government policy.  I discussed why the UK voted for Brexit, what’s likely to happen next and the potential impact of President Trump with one of Brexit’s architects, Matthew Elliott, formerly Chief Executive of Vote Leave.  Across a broad conversation Elliott, now Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute think tank, explained why Brexit remains on course, how belief in sovereignty and free markets is at the heart of British Euroscepticism and why Trump’s election is likely to prove helpful for Brexit Britain.

Why Brexit remains on track

We start with last month’s General Election. Theresa May claimed she needed the vote to undercut those who were trying to undermine the Brexit result, and to strengthen her bargaining hand in Brussels. Then she lost her Parliamentary majority. I ask whether this creates a risk that Brexit could be disrupted, and perhaps even stopped outright. Elliott is undeterred. He admits that ‘obviously we’re not in an ideal situation’, but explains that ‘both the Labour and Conservative manifestoes, and the DUP…basically had clean Brexit as part of it’. As both the Conservative and Labour manifestos included a pledge to end freedom of movement, they are de facto committed to a ‘clean’ Brexit.

Theresa May addresses supporters ahead of the 8 June 2017 General Election. 

Elliott believes that Labour in particular kept its Brexit position vague during the General Election, in order to appeal to both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters. He explained that ‘there were people in there [the Labour Party] who were given licence to almost imply that we’d stay part of the single market and therefore to reassure people more on the Remain side of things. And then people on the Leave side of things would have been reassured by what was said about ending freedom of movement so they [Labour] were able to span both of those constituencies’. For this reason Elliott expects Labour to concentrate on austerity and investment in public services, rather than Brexit going forward. He notes that, for the reasons outlined earlier, Labour ‘won’t want too much of a spotlight shone on their Brexit policy…they’ll want to keep it slightly ambiguous’ in order to prevent their electoral coalition fracturing.

What needs to happen for the ‘Leave’ vote to be honoured?

If Brexit remains on course then what form should it take? And more specifically what needs to happen for last years ‘Leave’ vote to have been truly delivered? Elliott refers me to a 13 June Tweet by Steve Baker, who had just been named a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union. Baker called for ‘the “softest” exit consistent with actually leaving and controlling laws, money, borders and trade’. Elliott adds that ‘if you’re on the Leave side you don’t want a hard, bumpy, bleak Brexit – of course we want to be in a position where we essentially have the softest Brexit possible and also Brexit where we maximise the opportunities of post-Brexit Britain i.e. being able to do the trade deals we want with the 80% of the world which isn’t part of the EU’. Elliott sums up this approach as ‘maximise opportunities, minimise disruptions’ which he believes should be the guiding principle for the UK team during Brexit talks.

What motivates British Eurosceptics?

We turn to why the UK voted leave, and what motivates Eurosceptics. There’s a strong case that British Eurosceptics, or at least the dominant faction which ran the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, are one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented groupings in modern politics. Most global media outlets seem to portray Brexit as a predominantly nativist phenomenon, often associated (including by the man himself) with the election of Donald Trump. Speaking to Elliott it’s clear this is widely off the mark. His Euroscepticism is focused on sovereignty and free markets – its intellectual roots are in classical liberalism, not some reactionary creed.

Elliott sees sovereignty, rather than immigration as some have argued, as the root cause of the Brexit vote asserting that the result ‘was mainly about sovereignty…people understand that migration is a subset of that’. He adds that ‘we found that people were most concerned about the lack of control over migration, the fact that democratically elected politicians in the UK weren’t the people actually in charge of it’ rather than the ‘precise numbers’. When it comes to trade Elliott’s case for Brexit is globalist rather than protectionist. He asserts that ‘the EU is shrinking in proportional relevance in the world GDP, we want to be trading with the fastest growing countries in the world, the China’s the India’s, we want a trade deal with America we don’t need the EU any more’.

Vote Leave supporters campaigning ahead of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership. 

Elliott admits that a lot of his fellow free marketers were ‘really quite outraged in a way that I was involved on the Brexit side’ as ‘they saw the EU as being a liberalising force and a free market force’. Certainly British Euroscepticism seems unusual, amongst its European counterparts, in the extent to which it is motivated by free market principles and comfortable with globalisation. In much of Europe Euroscepticism seems predominantly to be the preserve of the nationalist-authoritarian right and the socialist left, of Marine Le Pen and Alexis Tsipras. I ask Elliott why this disparity exists. He points to the reasons behind Britain’s decision to join the block in the first place.

According to Elliott the UK joined the EEC in 1973 as ‘we were basically the sick man of Europe and our economy had gone to the dogs and basically people thought “we’re not quite sure about this thing but if it’s all about free trade…it sort of makes sense to be part of this trade block”’. Thus he argues that as the relative standing of the UK economy improved due to domestic pro-market reform, and the EU’s share of the global marketplace shrank, membership ceased to make sense for the UK. Essentially for the UK, unlike a lot of other European nations, membership of the EEC/EU was for purely economic rather than political reasons. The British didn’t see it as crucial to maintaining peace in Europe, as the original six members did, nor as a way of locking their nation into the Western (liberal-democratic) world order following the end of dictatorship, as was the case in Eastern Europe and certain Mediterranean countries. Thus when the economic case for membership weakened, and the EU became more nakedly political, the British centre-right became increasingly Eurosceptic.

Revealingly Elliott highlights the 2012 Olympics as symbolising the newly revitalised and globally focused UK. He asserts that ‘the summer of 2012 when we had…the Olympics, that was really the UK at its peak and really full of its confidence and really exercising soft power right across the world in a very different way to the 1970s and by the time we’d got to that point we were thinking actually why should we be confined to the EU? We’re actually team GB we can have a global scope’. Elliott won’t be drawn on whether other countries should leave the EU, he sees this as strictly a matter for them, but does admit that ‘if you come from a country which has had extremely high rates of tax and high levels of regulation and has been extremely protectionist then you can sort of see how the EU is a liberalising force’. The implication seems to be that the attitude of free-marketers and classical liberals towards the EU should depend on whether the body is a liberalising or authoritarian force in their respective countries. In Britain’s case Elliott is clear – ‘I don’t think anyone would say the EU has been a force for the free market in the UK…quite to the contrary’.

Trump and Brexit

We turn, perhaps inevitably, to the most powerful individual in the world claiming to be a conservative. President Donald Trump. Elliott is clearly in two minds about Trump’s election. On the one hand he describes Trump as ‘great for Brexit because I think he’s made it extremely clear that he wants to have a US-UK trade deal’. By contrast ‘I don’t think that would have happened so much with Hillary Clinton because she was obviously opposed to Britain leaving the EU and she would want to be cosying up to the EU by suggesting that she wouldn’t be doing a trade deal with the UK’.

However as a staunch free marketer Elliott is clearly concerned about Trump’s more general protectionism, and the way protectionist ideas have infiltrated American conservatism. He explains how earlier this summer he went on an eight state speaking tour of America to drum up support for a US-UK trade deal. Initially Elliott made a general pro-free trade pitch, arguing ‘this is why we need free trade to bring about prosperity and it’s a driver of growth…everything I believe in’. However this pitch ‘didn’t go down particularly well’ with the conservative audiences, so Elliott refined his speech to one emphasising the cultural bonds and economic compatibility between the UK and US.  He adds that a combination of his US tour and Corbyn’s strong General Election performance ‘brought home to me that we’ve basically lost the free trade argument…we need to re-explain the free enterprise case’.

Blair, Brown and how the Euro could have stopped Brexit

We finish the interview with two interesting sideswipes. Firstly Elliott credits two unlikely parties as being amongst those who can take the credit (or blame) for the Brexit vote. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He argues that their failure to hold a referendum over the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treat removed a potential safety valve which would have made the British public’s discomfort with the European project clear to both UK and EU elites. This resulted in pressure continuing to build steadily, until the eruption in June 2016. Slightly to my surprise, Elliott also credits Britain’s non-membership of the Eurozone as being helpful to the Brexit movement, stating that if Britain was using the Euro ‘I think it would be less likely we would have won’. The campaign would have become ‘a bit like the Scotland referendum when the big argument was all about how can you recreate your own currency…it would have been an additional complication and debate’. Instead, due to the pound’s survival, ‘people could see a way forward for us to leave’.


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