Brexit analysis in a fact-free debate

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Behind-the-scenes Brexit preparations continue to cause embarrassment for the government as news of a new, wholly negative Brexit analysis has leaked into the public domain.

The analysis, leaked to BuzzFeed, warns that the UK will be worse off, under every scenario, compared to a counterfactual in which the UK never leaves the EU. Of particular concern to a government currently on course to leave the customs union and European Economic Area, the analysis predicts that the economic damage of Brexit will be worse if the UK pursues a hard Brexit.

Naturally, government ministers have been swift to condemn the analysis. Steve Baker said, for example, that the report ‘does not take into account the government’s preferred option’ of leaving the EU – in the absence of anything more explicit from the Department for Exiting the EU, the preferred option is, presumably, that Brexit will be an economic success. Treasury officials will just have to work backwords methodologically from that point to work out what Brexit will actually look like.

Baker further condemned the research with the assertion that economic forecasts are ‘always wrong’. This seems almost fair enough given that such forecasts can fall well wide of the mark – as the Treasury will be well aware following its prediction that the immediate impact of a Brexit vote would plunge the UK into recession – but somehow relying on pure gut instinct and a general sense that abandoning the EU’s structures will work out fine in the end does not seem like much of an alternative. Until the full analysis is released to the general public, it is impossible to judge the quality of the Treasury’s work, but dismissing all economic analysis out of hand does give the impression of a department unwilling to listen to its own experts at best and deliberately cherry picking research at worst.

It is one thing to call into question the quality of the civil service’s output, but members of the Conservative’s hard Brexit wing have taken things a step further by intimating that the Treasury has produced this analysis with the specific purpose of undermining Brexit. What motivates qualified economic analysts to oppose Brexit other than their professional opinion of Brexit economics is not clear, however. But the idea that civil servants are a separate breed, driven by a nefarious urge to confound the ‘will of the people’ at any given opportunity does of course provide a convenient mechanism to automatically dismiss anything negative produced by government officials.

While the government has been clumsy in the way it attempted to dismiss the leaked analysis, there is an element of truth in some of their arguments and the other side of the Brexit debate is not wholly innocent in the way they have reacted to the leak. Economic forecasts are unreliable; by necessity they come with huge margins of error. Without seeing the methodology of the leaked analysis, and without being able to see the margin for error, the report’s conclusions are basically meaningless. Yet too many commentators have been quick to treat those conclusions as gospel. This is harmful for the overall tone and quality of the Brexit debate. Research has to be treated with caution, not judged based only on how closely conclusions align with the reader’s preconceptions.

The latest leaked Brexit analysis shows a government clearly struggling to keep its house in order. But, more than that, the leaked report exposes the fact-free, polarised reality of the Brexit debate. On one side, supporters of a hard Brexit dismiss out of hand any evidence that their approach might be wrong, even stooping to accusations of conspiracy. On the other side, remain supporters cling to any suggestion that Brexit will be a disaster, regardless of the provenance of the source. In this context, any evidence on either side, regardless of quality or rigour, is being made irrelevant.