The wisest Brexiters – such as Nigel Lawson – knew how good life is in Europe | William Keegan

With all the horrors in Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan – not to say (a touch of bathos here) the abysmal state of our Brexit-hit economy – a bank holiday weekend in La France profonde came as a most welcome relief. We were staying with a friend in the south-west region of Aveyron, near a village called La Salvetat-Peyralès.

I was struck by the thriving nature of the local rural economy – no potholes in sight – and the general atmosphere of wellbeing. As usual, as on all my trips to the continent, I met people who expressed astonishment at the harm the UK had done to itself with the Brexit referendum.

Suddenly, a fascinating memory resurfaced. We were not too far from the village, Vic-Fezensac, where the former chancellor and my old friend Nigel Lawson lived for some years in contented retirement. In 2007, I visited him there for a series of articles on former chancellors. (They were reprinted in my book, Nine Crises.)

Lawson was a free-market Thatcherite who championed deregulation and reducing the size of the state. I asked him what had attracted him to the area. Without hesitation, Mrs Thatcher’s former chancellor replied: “The old-fashioned way of life – and the health service”. I am not making this up!

Now, it is interesting that our beleaguered prime minister, Rishi Sunak, regards Lawson as a political role model. Indeed, he is reported to have a picture of Lawson in his office. Given his hero worship, Sunak might well be advised to delve into Lawson’s memoirs, where he makes short shrift of the idea – apparently favoured by Sunak –that national insurance should be abolished and merged with income tax. As Lawson wrote: “This would have been undesirable on a number of grounds. It would have had the unfortunate appearance of an increase in income tax. It would have weakened in the public mind the truth that social security benefits have to be paid for.” Chancellor Lawson was a firm believer in the contributory principle.

Unfortunately, Lawson became an influential propagator of Brexit. The irony of his choice to retire to France was not lost on the British public.

He was among those who argued that the benefits of our trading advantages with our closest neighbours could be replaced easily by trade deals under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization (WTO). For such a clever man, this was a fatal conceit, as has been illustrated by disastrous attempts by this Brexit-blinded government to effect such deals. (I should add here that, although a Brexiter, he once told me he was unhappy with some of the company he was keeping!)

So, here we are, with Brexit now recognised as an unmitigated disaster, whose failure has made an unmistakable contribution to placing the UK in the fourth division for economic prospects, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is notwithstanding a brave attempt by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to put an optimistic gloss on a minor recovery in UK output – from a low base – during the first quarter.

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The massacre of the Conservatives in the local elections shows that most of the nation has lost confidence in the Tories. This is the final reckoning: the public’s verdict on the accumulation of excessively rightwing policies of austerity – and, yes, on Brexit, whose failure has evidently dawned on the “red wall” constituencies. Many of these were simply conned by a bunch of liars, although few people like to admit they have been conned.

One of the politicians who saw through the Brexit nonsense from the start was Keir Starmer. Unfortunately, instead of having the courage of his convictions and persuading former Labour voters who had been seduced by Brexit of his case, the Labour leader did a U-turn: no return to the single market, or even the customs union.

But surely now it’s time for him to go back to first principles. The ­economy is £140bn worse off as a consequence of Brexit. Our trade is about 15% lower than if we had never left. Labour is struggling to explain how it can finance some unambitious public spending plans, yet Brexit has knocked some £40-50bn off the exchequer’s potential tax revenue.

To say they are making an election issue of the Tories’ handling of the economy, but to eschew attacking them for Brexit, is bizarre. Brexit is a central plank of their economic failure. Moreover, as recent reports about the impact of the delayed barriers on normal trade demonstrate, the worst has yet to come.

As France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, made clear in a recent interview with the Economist, Europe needs to hang together in the face of some obvious geopolitical horrors. Restoration of our trading relations with the EU would be a start.

Starmer is a football fan and player. Brexit is an open goal.

The Guardian

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