It’s not too early to tell that Brexit would be a disaster | Business

When the Bank of England was celebrating the 20th anniversary of becoming independent last year, I was asked whether I agreed that, notwithstanding my initial doubts, independence had proved a success.

I replied that it was too early to tell. This was an echo of a widely misunderstood quotation from the Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai, who, when President Nixon asked him what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution, reportedly replied: “It is too early to tell.”

Since the French revolution took place in 1789, this was considered rather a good joke, and is often referred to. I came across it again in the conclusion to my fellow journalist Tim Shipman’s book on the way the Conservative party landed us with the EU referendum.

Shipman uses it to illustrate his belief that it could be a very long time before one can judge the rights and wrongs of Brexit. Well, although I think he can hardly be faulted for his research, I could hardly disagree more with his conclusion.

At this point, it should be noted that a state department official who was with Nixon on that visit tried to set the record straight. He pointed out that Zhou, student of French history though he was, had in fact been referring to a more recent event: namely the Paris riots of 1968, and their repercussions.

My own view is that the economic, social and diplomatic damage caused by the referendum is all too apparent already.

The terrible thing is the way so many people still assume that Brexit will have to happen, notwithstanding the way that the polls are moving in a favourable direction – 59% Remain, 41% Leave was the latest I saw last week. Yet at a degree ceremony last week, a senior London University academic blithely stated “as we move inexorably towards leaving the European Union …”

This was after there had been a parade of alumni on screen, including a picture of the Daily Telegraph’s “commissioning editor for Brexit”. Your correspondent suppressed his desire to heckle – one must be on one’s best behaviour when one’s daughter is receiving a degree – but then thought: “Hang on a minute. The Brexit commissioning editor of the Telegraph cannot be all bad.”

Why? Because my mind went back to a recent article in the Telegraph. Yes, the paper in which the egregious Boris Johnson sounds off actually gave space to Julien Gaer, the distinguished consultant cardiac surgeon at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital, to explain what the prospect of Brexit is already doing to the NHS.

As anyone who has had occasion to have hospital treatment – in other words, most of us – knows, the NHS is on life support with the aid of foreign nationals and “free movement”. But Gaer reports that the government’s “reassurances” to NHS workers from overseas are not enough. Colleagues of his feel unwanted: “The environment in the country as a whole has become so toxic that they may simply up sticks and go somewhere they are appreciated.”

Now, the main reason why there is growing dissatisfaction is the manifest incompetence of the preparations for Brexit. But the real reason should be acknowledgement that Brexit would be a nonsense anyway. When that eccentric Brexiter Mervyn King complains about the state of play, you can be sure that he and other Leavers are getting their excuses in first.

Which brings us to King’s successor as governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has been asked to stay on beyond June 2019 in an attempt to bring continuity and stability to a crazy prospect.

There has recently been much criticism of the governor’s supposed inconsistency about his tenure. But when commentators complain that he wanted first a five-year term, then a six and now a seven, instead of the “normal eight”, they need to consult the history books.

There never was a “normal eight”. There was a normal five, normally renewable. Thus Gordon Richardson was governor 1973-83, Robin Leigh-Pemberton 1983-93, Eddie George 1993-2003 and King 2003-13. George Osborne, by offering Carney an eight-year term, wished to end the usual speculation about whether or not a five-year term would be renewed. Instead we have ended up with more speculation than ever about Carney, who keeps being accused of changing his mind.

However, while welcoming any extension of his lease, I hope that the governor will not be needed to steer us through Brexit; the national interest requires that the entire non-plan should be abandoned. Then Carney can be forgiven if he changes his mind again. As for the success of Bank independence, it is still too early to tell.

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