Wednesday brought a slough of doom and economic gloom to the scant Brexit smorgasbord. Treasury impact analysis was released that indicated that in a ‘worst case scenario’ withdrawal could cut the UK’s GDP by 3.9% over the next 15 years and Chancellor Philip Hammond set off on an eeyorish tour of TV and radio studios reiterating again and again that in every outcome quitting the EU would leave the UK economy poorer.
That’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer telling you that he and his government are actively pursuing a policy which they believe will be detrimental to the economic well-being of our nation.
To lighten the mood – Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, chipped in warning that Brexit and in particular a ‘worst case’ (those words again) no deal Brexit – would cause unemployment to rise, house prices to fall and quite possibly plunge the UK into the worst economic crisis in modern history.
“Fun, fun, fun!” as the Beach Boys so memorably sang.
The news went down in Brexit circles like an outbreak of viral gastroenteritis on a luxury cruise. Lacking the arguments to counter the report findings, the Brexiteers deployed ‘old faithful’ or ‘project fear’ as it is better known. Sensing perhaps that “PF” had grown a little stale, the trope was upgraded to ‘project hysteria’ and Rees-Mogg and chums spluttered their way around Westminster casting aspersions on Mr Carney, his CV, Canada, people called Mark and the use of numbers in general.
Those with long memories will recall that ‘Project Fear’ was first deployed in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, but it only really came into its own during the EU campaign of 2016. It is (and it pains me to say it) in many ways a brilliant campaigning strategy because it weaponises ignorance. Anyone can deploy ‘Project Fear’ for the simple reason that you don’t need to know or understand anything if you have ‘project fear’ in your arsenal.
“But this detailed expert analysis shows….”
“Look!!!! He’s using PROJECT FEAR!!!!”
“But WTO rules will mean hard borders and leave food rotting in containers on both sides of the Channel.”
“Project Fear!!!! Project Fear!!!”
“Look do you really have any idea of what this will do to the pound, your ability to travel, the food on your plate, the value of your home…?”
“Listen to him! What does he know? Did he predict 2008? The ERM? The euro??? I don’t think so. We are sick of experts! Project Fear!”
Far easier to shout ‘Project Fear!’ than to dig into some boring article that lays out the fairly credible economic risks of May’s proposals or the very obvious folly of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. And so you hear it used as near constant background noise. “Is this all just Project Fear Mark 2?” LBC’s Iain Dale and his ilk ask listeners who phone in to tell him that yes it is.
But it is the depressing regularity with which ‘Project Fear’ is deployed by politicians that should perhaps worry us the most. It’s lazy enough when used by journalists but when trotted out by the ERG rump it becomes a smoke screen and a decoy. Far too often they get away with it because broadcast journalists give it a wink, a nudge and a free pass. That is very dangerous indeed. As the UK drives, foot on accelerator, headlong into the brick wall of March 29th – all the shouts of ‘Project Fear’ in the world won’t make up for our collective lack of a seatbelt.