Mask slips as Tory schemers open Brexit think tank
For more than a year, the government has promised that Brexit will not be used as a wedge to undermine the rights and conditions guaranteed by EU membership that protect people in this country. Theresa May even said in her Lancaster House speech that “a fairer Britain is a country that protects and enhances the rights people have at work”.
Yesterday, however, in the gilded chambers of the Foreign Office, the mask slipped and we found that the prime minister’s warm words were being undermined by her complete lack of control over her cabinet ministers. Boris Johnson and Liam Fox last night used a government building, paid for by the taxpayer, to host the launch of a new think tank arguing for a hardline, right-wing, extreme Brexit. The new Institute for Free Trade is to be led by Conservative MEP and prominent Leave campaigner, Daniel Hannan.
Open Britain, the cross-party, pro-European group, has had a look at the policies and the priorities of the Institute for Free Trade and its president and it does not make for pleasant reading. It is difficult to over-emphasise how extreme some of their positions are.
They support so-called “unilateral free trade”, a policy that would dump all UK tariffs on imported products, without achieving reciprocal reductions from other countries. The practical consequence of this would be to flood the British market with cheap, low-quality goods that would quickly overwhelm our domestic producers. The author of this plan, Professor Patrick Minford, has cheerfully admitted that doing so would “mostly eliminate” British manufacturing.
They are relaxed about letting hormone-injected beef and chlorine-washed chicken into our country as the price of a trade deal with the US, despite even Michael Gove promising that food safety standards would not be compromised by Brexit.
They have no time at all for the vital firewall of employment protections that have been built up over decades of EU membership, describing these rights as “heavy-handed regulations that impede the creative process”. Just so no one is under any doubt, these regulations include the right to paid maternity and paternity leave; to paid holidays; to join a union; and to work free from discrimination on grounds of gender, race, nationality, sexuality or disability. Mr Hannan has gone even further and stated his opposition to the minimum wage.
Hannan’s views on the National Health Service are perhaps most worrying of all. This is someone who delights in scuttling round American TV studios attacking our NHS, one of this country’s proudest achievements. He has called it a “mistake” that the UK has had to live with “for 60 years now” and called for the introduction of “price mechanisms”. Mr Hannan’s unpatriotic and dangerous ideas, if implemented, would restrict ordinary peoples’ access to health care. Mr Johnson and Mr Fox have made similar comments in the past, with the international trade secretary calling for health spending to be cut and the foreign secretary saying that people should have to pay to use NHS services.
None of this is current government policy but the frequency and speed with which this government floats and then ditches policies means they might be one day soon. Mr Johnson’s leadership ambitions are the worst-kept secret in Westminster and this think tank should serve as a window into the gruesome agenda he and his fellow Brextremists want to impose on the country if they get their way.
It is perfectly possible that these policies could be introduced even if Boris does not come to power. Theresa May’s weakness is such that she may end up being forced into throwing some red meat to her rabid right flank. If the Government is as desperate as it seems to get a trade deal with the US after we leave the EU, regardless of the cost, it will undoubtedly be forced into concessions on issues such as food safety.
This manoeuvring by Mr Johnson and Mr Fox is undermining the government’s policy; furthering divisions within government; and advancing an agenda which would leave British working people worse off. Their plans and their scheming should be exposed and opposed by everybody who rejects an extreme Brexit.
James McGrory is executive director of Open Britain reposted from the Times