It’s not so much Project Fear, as Project Meh.
The government’s economic impact assessments, leaked to BuzzFeed, show that under every Brexit scenario modeled, U.K. growth is likely to be less than it might have been had the country just stayed in the EU.
Even under the softest off-the-shelf scenario (the so-called Norway model of staying within the single market), growth would be 2 percent lower over the next 15 years. Under a no-deal scenario in which the U.K. adopts World Trade Organization terms, that figure becomes 8 percent (the analysis doesn’t look at the government’s hypothetical option of a bespoke, souped-up trade deal).
It is not an economic catastrophe on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis, nor is it the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury before the EU referendum — the centerpiece of David Cameron and George Osborne’s so-called Project Fear.
But might a more conservative estimate of economic pain, from a government committed to delivering on Brexit, turn out to be more persuasive for those MPs and members of the British public still unsure of what kind of Brexit they want?
While the leak of this analysis, prepared by officials across Whitehall, looks like an attempt to undermine the case for hard Brexit (Brexiteer MP Iain Duncan Smith called the timing “highly suspicious”), it can’t be argued that it was drawn up with this aim in mind. This was a report produced for private consumption by ministers on both sides of the argument — although Brexit Minister Steve Baker told MPs today that the story is a “selective interpretation.”
But past experience of the Brexit debate suggests that although the explosive scoop will animate the Westminster bubble, it may have little effect among voters beyond. This is hardly the first economic analysis suggesting that Brexit will make Britain poorer. Opinion polls consistently suggest that many Leave voters understand this (a poll of over 5,000 people at the weekend found just 36 percent of voters think Brexit will actually help the economy), but don’t seem to care much.
For many who voted Leave, arguments about identity, immigration and national sovereignty combined with promises (sincere or not) of repatriating money for public services trumped economic warnings. Many of them feel they are not seeing their fair share of GDP in any case, so a few percentage points either way over 15 years may not strike them as a big deal.
As Osborne’s former chief of staff Rupert Harrison tweeted in response to the BuzzFeed leak: “As any economist will tell you, its [sic] basically impossible to come up with any other conclusion based on standard trade impacts. To the extent there are any valid arguments for Brexit they are almost all non-economic.”