Was anything about the “Leave” campaign not a con?

Hopefully this will be the last you hear from me on Brexit except insofar as it impacts US foreign policy and/or the parts of the world I usually cover. The truth is, while I knew the referendum was happening and I’d read enough about it to be basically informed, I haven’t been keeping a close watch on the particulars of the campaigns because, again, British politics just isn’t what I do and there are only so many hours in the day. But this is the major story of the day, so it’s been hard not to consider what happened, why, and what it means going forward. And one of the things I’d like to ask of people who were more attuned to the campaign is this: was anything the “Leave” campaign said actually true?

The result of the Brexit referendum is hard for me to parse. As I’ve written before, I find the EU to be a deeply flawed institution that should, if it remains together at all, undertake serious reform to make it a real union as opposed to what it currently is, France and Germany Plus Their Hinterlands. But Britain’s vote to leave the EU was spearheaded by a collection of, to be frank and British about it, tossers; men like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who have no compunction about playing on the fears of struggling people with racially charged xenophobia. Some politicians, for better or worse, try to offer genuine solutions to people’s problems and concerns; politicians like Farage and Johnson offer only scapegoats, always carefully drawn from the most vulnerable parts of society. The ugly right-wing nationalism that fueled the “Leave” side, and that will now be emboldened in victory, is more dangerous than the EU, warts and all.

The kicker here is that Johnson and Farage made their case for “Leave” by conning their audience. For instance, Johnson spent the last week of the campaign assuring voters that there would be no economic collapse if “Leave” won the referendum:

Taking part in a phone-in, Johnson was asked by a caller if he would “apologise” and would be “humble” if there was a crash.

Johnson replied: “Yes. I would, because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Presenter Nick Ferrari chipped in: “So you will bow on television if the economy goes through the floor in the event of ‘Brexit’?”

Johnson responded: “I don’t think it’s going to happen, I think what is happening at the moment.”

Pressed again, Johnson added: “Of course, I think I’ve always been pretty humble about everything.”

Johnson argued pro-‘Brexit’ British entrepreneurs including vacuum inventor Jeremy Dyson and JCB’s Anthony Bamford were better barometers, arguing they were job creators rather than market speculators.

Yeah, about that:

The pound plummeted, reaching depths not seen since 1985 — well below the value at the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. The euro dropped.

From Tokyo to London to New York, stocks tumbled sharply on Friday, as markets digested the changing world order. American shares were down 3.6 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average sank 611 points, its biggest drop since August.

British stocks were off 3.2 percent, while broader European shares dropped 8.6 percent.
Investors took refuge in the safest investments, bolstering the value of American government debt and the Japanese currency.

Less than an hour after the markets opened in London, Mark J. Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, stood in front of television cameras to announce that the central bank had earmarked 250 billion pounds, about $344 billion, to unleash as needed for stability. Stock markets took some solace, paring back their losses for the day.

I won’t hold my breath waiting to see if Johnson apologizes.

Then there’s the NHS story. One of the “Leave” campaign’s strongest talking points had to do with the idea that the UK could take the money it currently sends to the EU and sock it into the National Health System. They emblazoned that message on the sides of campaign buses:


Yeah, about that:

In fairness, Nigel never actually said that the money would go to the NHS (UPDATE: actually…). He just kept his mouth shut while his “Leave” fellow travelers said it.

Last but certainly not least, consider the fact that the UK’s vote to leave the EU isn’t actually triggering a move to, you know, leave the EU, and Johnson, who looks like the favorite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, apparently isn’t prepared to take the steps necessary to make that happen:

Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the failed campaign to convince voters to stay in the EU, told the public that an exit would not happen soon, as he intended to resign in three months and leave it to his successor to decide “when to trigger Article 50″ of the union’s basic agreement, the Lisbon Treaty, which says that a member state has two years after declaring its desire to leave to negotiate the terms of its exit.

Speaking to the press a short time later, the man considered most likely to be prime minister in October, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, also seemed in no hurry to get the process started.

“In voting to leave the EU, it is vital to stress that there is no need for haste,” Johnson said, “and indeed, as the prime minister has just said, nothing will change over the short term, except that work will have to begin on how to give effect to the will of the people and to extricate this country from the the supranational system.”

Johnson has previously, it should be said, suggested that a “leave” vote could simply lead to a renegotiation with Brussels, and it’s true that the referendum was not legally binding so nobody has to invoke Article 50. But if Johnson has been trying to convince people that voting “Leave” might not actually mean “leaving,” then he may have been selling them a bill of goods. At the very least, he was making some serious assumptions about how the EU would respond. Right now, and admittedly tempers may be running hot, the EU seems more inclined to say “get the hell out” than to ask “how can we keep you in the fold?”


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