inequality‘One night of madness
You can look straight into these eyes
Turns into sadness’

Exactly 2-yrs ago I wrote an article entitled ‘Why did Turkeys Vote for Christmas?’, where I considered why the so-called Red Wall had turned blue. I won’t bore you with detail you can read for yourself, but in short there was a combination of post-Brexit euphoria, anti-establishment populism, and, most importantly, the promise of ‘levelling-up’.

As regular readers will know I regarded the latter as a hollow promise and labelled the new elected Tory red wall MPs the ‘temporary 57’. It would seem I was right to do so, a recent poll of red wall seats in the Mail on Sunday put Labour 16-points ahead of the Conservatives and up 5-points nationally, with Keir Starmer outscoring Boris Johnson. The paper revealed a litany of lost voter trust, reporting ‘panic among MPs who fear they are doomed’ and a ‘frenzy of bitching’.

This can be partly explained by a rejuvenated Labour party, with MPs and local party members no longer fighting each other, and policy proposals such as wealth taxes, a £28bn green new deal and fair pay deals, all of which refutes the ‘Tory clone’ jibe.

In turn the Tory’s are ‘devouring themselves, eaten up by the Ukip-infected extremists who have been selecting its MPs for years’. Brexit was only the beginning, these libertarians are now pushing for deregulation, and spending cuts. It is the latter that is the final betrayal of the former red wall electorate.

The chancellor’s rift with the prime minister isolates the ‘temporary 57’ who were the victims of a populist electoral bribe the chancellor doesn’t wish to fund. Michael Gove, the minister responsible for delivering ‘levelling-up’ has no money to deliver what was promised, irrespective of whether he really wants to.

‘The chancellor’s rift with the prime minister isolates the ‘temporary 57’ who were the victims of a populist electoral bribe the chancellor doesn’t wish to fund’

This flimsy promise sums up both Johnson and populism; long-on rhetoric and short on delivery. Populists are best in opposition where they can decry governments with promises to do so much more, once in power these promises turn to dust.

It is only broken dreams the ‘red wall’ electorate will suffer, there is also April’s cost-of-living collision of rising inflation, energy bills, national insurance and council taxes.

There are wider issues for the Tories too, as their libertarianism sees them progressively out of touch with the wider electorate; C.100 Tory MPs voted against Covid precautions despite public backing for compulsory passports. The cabinet took a reckless position on new year clubbing, yet the Sunday Telegraph still complained that ‘Nannyism has won’. Its recent editorial commanded the Tories to ‘fulfil Brexit, deregulate, lower taxes’ in a country ‘swollen by regulations and spending’.

The right’s triumphant boasts of post-Brexit deregulation could lead to a giant free-for-all unchecked by environmental health officers. Abandoning their tax rise would lead to the NHS and social care collapsing.

As I have written before this a very different Conservative party to what we have seen previously. The party’s traditional supporters such as industrialists, agriculture, and the City can now be heard complaining at the damage done by extreme right libertarian populists.

It was Brexit that led us into this mess, and I suspect, if we had another referendum today the result would be different. I say this because we can now reflect on the first 12-months of standing alone.

‘April’s cost-of-living collision of rising inflation, energy bills, national insurance and council taxes’

We will start with the positives, if the PM is to be believed he puts returning the crown stamps to pint glasses and scrapping a ban on selling goods in pounds and ounces are the high points. In which case I must ask did we really go through all that for such triviality?

Other notable successes highlighted by Johnson include the UK ‘using Brexit freedoms’ to create a new immigration system and to strike new trade deals around the world with countries such as Australia.

In addition, he claimed Brexit had helped secure the vaccine rollout, although some have challenged that claim.

On cutting red tape, the PM listed ending VAT on sanitary products, simplifying complex EU alcohol duty rates.

He said, ‘We’ve replaced free movement with a points-based immigration system. We’ve secured the fastest vaccine rollout anywhere in Europe last year by avoiding sluggish EU processes. And from Singapore to Switzerland, we’ve negotiated ambitious free trade deals to boost jobs and investment here at home’.

Looking ahead to 2022, Johnson pledged the government would go ‘further and faster’ to maximise the opportunities of Brexit.

Officials are supposedly reviewing thousands of individual EU regulations automatically kept on the statute book after Brexit with a view to repealing those that do not act in the best interests of people and businesses. This could include reviews of the regulatory regimes around artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, data rights, genetically modified food and medical devices as areas where the UK could deviate from the EU.

Johnson added, ‘the job isn’t finished and we must keep up the momentum. In the year ahead my government will go further and faster to deliver on the promise of Brexit and take advantage of the enormous potential that our new freedoms bring’.

‘In the year ahead my government will go further and faster to deliver on the promise of Brexit and take advantage of the enormous potential that our new freedoms bring’

From the positives we turn to the negatives, which are disproportionality greater.

In 2021, companies across Britain have suffered from the worst trade disruption in recent memory, as Brexit collided with the pandemic.

Whilst the pandemic is, hopefully, a passing issue, Brexit will have a permanent impact, increasing costs for businesses, causing more delays. Trade will never be as smooth as it used to be.

In November, the government committed to boosting UK exports of goods and services from £600bn to £1tn by 2030, under the banner ‘Made in the UK, sold to the world’. Looking at what Brexit has delivered so far suggests something more than a new slogan will be required.

The most up-to-date figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which cover the first 10 months of the year, show goods exports to the rest of the world are down by 14%, or more than £40bn, compared with 2019.

Isolating UK trade with the EU, exports have risen by 6%, C.£7bn, in the year to October compared with the same period in 2020, however this increase is misleading due to the fallout from the pandemic. A more accurate comparison is that they remain 13%, C. £18bn, down on the same periods in 2019 and 2018.

Within this are specific sectors suffering from what could be permanent structural changes:

  • Outbound shipments of clothing and footwear to the EU are down by about 60% compared with 2019.
  • Meat exports have plunged by almost 25%,
  • Vegetables and fruit are down by an even steeper 40%.
  • Fishing, held up by Brexiters as a sector that would benefit most saw a 15% fall in exports.

The textile sectors fall could be down to ‘rule of origin’ requirements, which require a proportion of a product to be domestically produced to benefit from a trade deal. This is because a high proportion of clothing sold by UK retailers is made in Asia or the US, making them ineligible for the tariffs negotiated in the post-Brexit trade deal.

Food products are suffering due to customs controls and the costs of checks on standards, and transport and logistic complications.

Other data highlights UK exporters losing market share. ‘Work by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis on trade by advanced economies shows goods exports for the month of September were just 1.3% below the monthly average in 2018, after adjusting for inflation. In the UK, however, real exports were almost 15% down in the same month’.

Despite all the triumphant talk of free trade deals the fact still remains that the EU is the UK’s nearest and biggest market, and still accounts for almost half of trade.

Official government figures estimate the free trade deals signed so far – including those with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan – will add less than 1% to UK GDP over 15 years. A trade deal with the US would produce the same as these small deals combined, experts say, still not enough to make up the EU shortfall.

‘The EU is the UK’s nearest and biggest market, and still accounts for almost half of trade’


Whist it is fair to say that the effect of Covid has made a bad situation worse, there are concerns over a further worsening of relations with France, and the situation with negotiations over the NI protocol.

Samuel Tombs, the chief UK economist at the consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics, said: ‘A renewed trade spat likely would ensure that global manufacturers remain reluctant to locate production facilities in Britain, thereby undermining exports in the medium term.’ He cautioned that the competitiveness of UK goods could start to decline ‘indefinitely’ as tougher migration rules push up labour costs and a departure from EU safety standards restricts where products can be sold.

He went on to say that the £1tn export target, which is C. 67% higher than total trade volumes this year, ‘looks like another Brexit fantasy’.

Further adding to trade misery, the refrigerated supply chain trade body has said, that new customs checks, which took effect from 1st January from the EU ‘more expensive, less flexible and much slower’.

‘Whilst the need to stockpile items such as Olives, and Prosciutto may not worry the average ‘red wall’ Brexiter, there is a bigger picture’

Specifically, the Cold Chain Federation (‘CCF’) said speciality food imports could face the same 70% decline that affected exports of food by small businesses post-Brexit.

Extra costs that amount to £300 to £400 for each consignment will mean sales of food to EU countries in small batches could become uneconomic, said the CCF, which lobbies on behalf of firms that transport frozen and chilled goods.

Whilst the need to stockpile items such as Olives, and Prosciutto may not worry the average ‘red wall’ Brexiter, there is a bigger picture. Rising food prices have played a large part in the increase in inflation over the past six months, and economists fear higher import charges will push up prices further, forcing the Bank of England to increase interest rates at a faster pace than anticipated.

When you reflect on Johnson’s claims for Brexit, they don’t go much beyond returning the crown stamps to pint glasses and scrapping a ban on selling goods in pounds and ounces. The rest of it is the usual hollow bombast, promises of jam tomorrow, and slogans; in short, populism.

As I have continually written ‘red wallers’ were fed a line. Johnson might have even meant it at the time he said it, but for low tax, small state libertarians ‘levelling-up’ isn’t part of the plan.

As for the ‘temporary 57’ it’s been nice knowing you. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, everyone should be famous for 15-minutes, after that it’s back to the day job.

‘Did I dream, you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was full sail?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks’


  1. Bassetlaw is a constituency in Nottingham where 68.3% voted Leave in the EU referendum. This has been a safe Labour seat since 1935 until 2019 when the Conservatives won more than half of the vote share, with a swing of 18.4%, the largest in the country, and a majority of over 14,000 votes for the new MP.

Its a return to its roots for Philip’s column this week, as the UK ‘celebrates’ a year of freedom and control.

The Red Wall voters feature prominently in Philip’s commentary and he’s rarely pulled a punch in terms of the way he believes they were hoodwinked; he rather generously acknowledges that perhaps Boris was sincere in his ambition to level up, but the way in which the electorate was seemingly manipulated after the ‘victory’ that was the Brexit vote smacks rather more of Dominic Cummings than anything else.  

However, the polls now seem to indicate that the rose tinted specs may be becoming clouded by a red mist as Tory support in these traditional labour-leaning constituencies is apparently evaporating; the fear of the swingometer could see Tory grandees sharpen their knives to rid the party of a leader seemingly well on the way to spaffing an 80 seat majority, but what comes next?

Could you really appoint Liz Truss – a woman who thinks that drones can be scared off by barking dogs – or even Mr Sunak who may have to deliver too much unpleasant medicine to balance the books.

Philip’s assessments of the pros and cons of Brexit are undeniably skewed as anybody who has followed his work might expect, but if they extend little further than the restoration of a crown on pint glasses and the return of pounds and ounces, the pros column defines small victories.

In a recent interview Edwina Curry said that one of the most liberating things about Brexit was the ability to stick two fingers up at Brussels; could have done that.

As Omicron tears through the population, it is perhaps the right-wing libertarians that we should be most fearful of; desperate to keep the economy (AKA their businesses) motoring, the very idea of further restrictions is complete anathema to them – even though ‘small c’ conservative Joe Public is actually very much in favour of further measures to curb the pandemic.

But then work this out; PCR testing is to be scaled back due in no small part of the pressure the latest wave of infection is putting on the system, and quarantine periods are being cut to get people back to work – even though they may still be infectious. At the same time a relaxation in the SSP regulations means that people can now self-certify an illness for 28 days without the need for a doctor’s note, to relieve pressure on the system.

A caller to LBC earlier declared this as a ‘victory for the little guy’ – being rewarded for having worked hard by, er,  being able to take 28 days off at will; is it me?

I guess it’s just your misfortune if the chap that was supposed to be driving your train or doing your knee surgery was to avail themselves of the same opportunity.

Look no further than our airports for more evidence of the libertarians at work. Can it ever be denied that aviation turned an outbreak in China into a pandemic in a way that had never been seen before?

If one of the benefits of Brexit was ‘taking back control of our borders’ surely that was the opportunity; close the borders and keep the wee beastie out. But we didn’t; our world-leading death toll was fuelled by the needless arrival of Delta and now Omicron is apparently out of control, albeit seemingly less deadly.

Meantime, the airlines and airports have never stopped bleating about ‘hard working families’ getting the holidays they ‘deserve’, reuiniting families, global trade, blah blah. Make no mistake, its about their profits – and now, with the highest ever infection levels, Grant ‘Two Planes’ Shapps has scrapped the need for arrivals to be tested on the bizarre grounds that Omicron is already out of control. 

So a rugby sevens team of boyos can’t go out for a pint, but 300 Tomas, Rico and Haris can be cheek by jowl on a plane for three hours, and then stroll through our borders unhindered. IHU must be licking its little lips.

Two tracks this week – ‘the best band out of Hull in years, The Paddington’s with ’50 to a pound’. We finish with one of the most haunting and beautiful songs ever recorded. It is particularly apt as it has the ethereal promise that was ‘Levelling Up’, but it’s all just fantasy. This Mortal Coil with the ‘Song to the Siren’, with vocals from the incomparable Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.’ Enjoy!


Philip Gilbert 2Philip Gilbert is a city-based corporate financier, and former investment banker.

Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s


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