On this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4, Mishal Husein interviewed Employment Minister and Leave campaigner Priti Patel, following Leave’s pledge to match all the EU funding lost as a result of Brexit for every region of the UK. In a masterclass in political interviewing, Mishal Husein effectively destroyed the Leave campaign’s case, by asking a handful of key questions; it was obvious that Priti Patel had no realistic answer at all.
It’s worth revisiting those questions, because they’re the ones that should have been asked all along by the Remain campaign.
First, by what authority is the Leave campaign making these pledges? It’s not a government, it’s a cross-party coalition (even if drawn largely from the Tory right). On what basis can it offer a programme? As Husein pointed out, it’s governments, not campaigns, that make decisions. And this opens up a much bigger question – if the UK votes to leave, what are the negotiating aims that will inform the at least two years of negotiation that will follow?
Second, on what are the alleged savings from EU membership to be spent? Patel argued that there were two specific commitments – putting money into the NHS and cutting VAT on fuel. But as Husein pointed out, there have been all sorts of other commitments about where this money might be spent. Moreover, it’s obvious that EU money goes into the widest possible range of projects – infrastructure, training, agriculture, and social programmes like Sure Start. And it is heavily targetted at areas like Wales and Cornwall which have Less Developed Region status. Even if it were for the Leave campaign to make pledges, its position is incoherent. It’s dishonest too – Patel talked of alleviating the pressure caused by mass migration on services but there is no evidence that recent EU arrivals are anything other than net contributors to the public purse. And, moreover, why is there a funding crisis in the NHS? Not because of the EU, or migration, but because of conscious decisions by Tories (and Liberal Democrats) in Government. The people in the Leave campaign chose, and supported, cuts in the NHS and should be held to account for that.
Third, what about the economic hit from leaving? There is a clear consensus among macroeconomists that leaving the EU will hit the economy hard – which means a fall in tax revenues, and undermines any suggestion that there will be a spending bonanza. Moreover, EU spending is targeted by region and by economic sector. There appear to be no estimates of the multiplier effect of EU spending, but it is likely to be substantial, focussed as it is on the poorest regions. Without an understanding of the fiscal multiplier effect, it is simply fraudulent in economic terms to say that funding will be maintained. It’s a technical point, but an important one. Priti Patel talked about unleashing growth if we leave; but the economics imply precisely the opposite.
The Referendum campaign has been a festival of negative politics – of scaremongering and, increasingly, of the purest racism from the Leave camp. The genius of Mishal Husein’s interview was how she allowed Priti Patel the airtime to show how shallow, confused and downright dishonest the Leave campaign’s economics are.
NB This post has been amended to reflect the fact that I originally attributed the interview to Sarah Montague. Apologies.