I caught up with former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib who now runs the pressure group 'Unlocked', campaigning for an end to lockdown and highlighting the economic and social damage of remaining in lockdown. You can watch the full conversation on YouTube, with links to the videos throughout or digest a condensed summary on each question and debate point in this article. A massive thank you to Ben for joining Alice Grant and I to have a chat about all of the most relevant political topics.
First of all, before we get into lockdown discussions, let's talk about Brexit! The recent events in Northern Ireland have led to calls to scrap the Northern Irish Protocol from the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, what are your thoughts on this?
"Well, I've been very vocal on the Northern Irish Protocol (NIP) since July of 2019 when it was first being spoken about. The first point I would like to make is that it is very easy to implement a smart border, such as the ones in use at Calais, rather than a hard border, this has been proven recently by the European Union. The Good Friday Agreement, in Clause 22, only prohibits military installations, not customs checks. The whole issue has been weaponised by Remainers, the EU and the Republic of Ireland to frustrate Brexit. We have essentially been forced into a border in the Irish Sea, which the EU themselves accept isn't necessary, if they thought it was then they wouldn't have triggered Article 16 of the NIP last weekend. The European Commission really realised the optics were against them when they triggered Article 16, but this is what we've been saying for the last three or four years. Prohibiting vaccines getting into the UK could've cost people their lives and certainly damaged a whole lot more, so I think the misrepresentation is very clear. The government must now grasp this opportunity and repudiate the Northern Irish Protocol, which they can do. This whole scenario has led the EU to dropping its mask. I would also like to point out that on 12th September 2020, Boris Johnson wrote in The Daily Telegraph that he has 'one arm tied behind his back' by Parliament, but then he got an 80 seat majority but seemed to bottle it on the issue of Northern Ireland. The Internal Markets Bill was a vital piece of legislation but then of course all of the important clauses which protected Northern Ireland were dropped at the last minute. We can terminate the trade deal should we need to but the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be terminated, the Northern Irish Protocol can be but that is down to Stormont. Boris picked up a poisoned chalice and then he had to go and win an election, where he was tied by the Withdrawal Agreement; he was also tied by his own deadline, self-imposed but necessary. I think we should now be gearing up to terminate the Trade Agreement in 12 months on 31st December 2021 by preparing our fishing industry, taking the fight to Paris and Frankfurt for financial services and ensuring we have tariffs ready. We need to stand on our own two feet now and we need to scrap the contributions to the European Defence Fund and our commitment to the European Investment Bank. Boris has the moral high ground over the EU don't forget."
What should the government's biggest priority be when exiting lockdown?
"Well, I'm no scientist, but that doesn't mean I can't have an opinion on the matter! Science isn't unified on the matter of lockdown, there's been some pretty high-profile names such as Sunetra Gupta who have challenged lockdown, but it is the government's job to weigh up all the options and hear the views from all perspectives. I believe the government should've backtracked on its policy of lockdowns when the Great Barrington Declaration came to prominence. Now I believe it is most important to protect the elderly and those who are shielding, we have near enough vaccinated everyone over 70 and on track to vaccinate everyone over 60 in the coming week or so. The problem for me is that it seems as if the government has lost courage; they've been slow off the mark in dealing with the response from PPE to the track and trace to closing the borders and so on, and that I think, has led them to being paranoid of making more mistakes. The Prime Minister, I'm sorry to say, is taking advice from his advisers and treating it as the only advice in some respects and the only strategy forward, where as I said earlier, there isn't a consensus in the scientific community. They now seem to be scared of mutations now, unfortunately that is going to happen and we need to learn to live with that, we should be protecting the vulnerable and elderly as well as ensuring the NHS has the capacity but we should also be opening the economy to the fullest extent. We need the economy to be turned back on, international travel, tourism, trade, the list goes on but I do want to add, all hats off to the government with the vaccine roll out programme, it's been really first class."
What do you believe the greatest cost of lockdown is?
"The damage to the private sector, public sector workers haven't really been affected, whereas in the private sector, whole sectors and industries have been wiped out. Furlough works short term but does nothing for businesses in the medium to long term. Many firms will be badly damaged when the government stimulus is removed. It is very interesting however that unemployment has remained constant throughout, this of course could be skewed by the fact people aren't actively seeking employment, which is one of the qualifications of being 'unemployed', many people, of a certain age, who have lost their jobs may have taken an early retirement for example. The economic cost is also huge, however we have been quantitative easing which is a necessary evil, if you like, it may indeed be the economy's saving grace. Quantitative easing doesn't work when sterling collapses but as long as the US, EU and Japan keep printing money, then it won't collapse. The money must be used wisely, the Chancellor has been pretty sound on his support packages but we are lacking a pro-growth strategy, essentially Andrew Bailey is monetising our debt so that makes any debt from the last year or so a 'non debt'."
How do we get out of this then?
"One of the things I have suggested in the past is a reverse furlough scheme, where the government actually pays firms to employ people which I know they're sort of doing with the Kickstarter Scheme for young people, it would essentially force companies to restart which will only benefit the economy. We need to really restart the economic machine in this country and wholeheartedly start unlocking the economy. In terms of Corporation Tax, whatever you do to it, there's going to be little impact because firms aren't making profits, commerce is moving more online now so we do need to look at how we adapt to that; sales taxes are demanding for everyone and are usually passed onto the consumer. I do think we need to tax online based companies more equitably though, that is something we should certainly be looking at."
What effect do you think the vaccine will have?
"Like I said earlier, it has been a terrific success for the PM, the first major success on a wide scale of his premiership and we are certainly ahead of the field internationally on this and we have had a truly first class dispensation. We were quick to make our orders for vaccine doses and crucially we ordered a surplus. The EU signed an agreement with AstraZeneca but it wasn't legally binding, it was a promise that they would do their best to meet demand, this is where we have really excelled as I say, they weren't prepared to pay up front or invest in the development of the vaccines. Let us not forget that we wouldn't have been able to approve the vaccine should we still have been an EU member state, it is down to our speedy approval that we've managed to dispense the vaccine so effectively. It's been developed by world class university research from Oxford and from private pharmaceutical companies, a sector which Brexit Britain can really be a global leader in. Vaccines are great things, I'm from a science background myself so it should be really giving people confidence and I would like to see some more positivity from the government!"
Back to Brexit again, what opportunities lie ahead for Brexit Britain once we have dealt with COVID?
"Well for a start, we need a whole new settlement from the EU, and we need to start championing the working and middle classes in this country, we really need to level up the whole country, not just the North but the whole of the UK. Now levelling up doesn't and shouldn't come from dragging down the wealthy, what we need is investment in our future and innovation, we need to ensure we have a multitude of world beating universities and a programme of first class apprenticeships. There should be a real focus on investment in research based universities which lead in their fields. I think Brexit allows us to really start building first class infrastructure, better buses, better train services and a better TfL! I think leaving the EU gives us a fantastic opportunity to cut taxes, we should be cutting VAT, to surcharge the economy, National Insurance contributions, fuel taxes and Council Tax around the country, these are taxes which disproportionately affect lower income people and families. Lets not forget, the spenders in our economy are the working and middle classes and we need consumption to recover after lockdown. Not only are these tax cuts morally right, they are economically sensible and will lead to faster growth. The Chancellor talks about balancing the books, Britain's books are in order, the Bank of England monetised all government debt issued in 2020 and took on some debt from 2019. The debt to GDP ratio is now 60pc so I think our finances are in good order. Going back to tax cuts, we should be making pro-business policies such as cutting business rates, alcohol taxes and stamp duty, this should all be paired with a programme of deregulation and the cutting of red tape. We need to urgently get out of the Level Playing Field with the EU and strive for a nation of entrepreneurs and SMEs, that isn't the European way so we need to embrace Brexit and work towards that model."
What do you think is the future for us on the global stage and in terms of international trade?
"Well first of all lockdown has led some to believe we need to move towards a state controlled economy, that shouldn't be the case, it's never worked anywhere in the past so we need to be careful on how much state aid we give to firms. I do think we need to intervene in the railways, completely nationalising them in order to get them back into shape and then to privatise them again. But, I do believe we need to be trading with the Commonwealth more, there's plenty of opportunities for post-Brexit Britain and Liz Truss, who I'm a big fan of, has been signing trade deals all over. I think we need to be trading more with India and I fully support the move to join the CPTPP, trade with those nations for Britain increased by 8pc since 2016 so just imagine how it'd be to be part of the agreement. It is a trading bloc or agreement as such in its purest form, no political ties like there is with the EU. We need to be making these trade agreements with developing countries as they are the trade agreements of the future."
Where next for the EU and Eurozone?
"I'm not so sure, all I will say is that it is an anti-democratic institution and bad for all member states. I really hope that this means member states take back control and see us as a success story and then push towards leaving themselves. Their ability to print money, as we have been doing, isn't the same - the ECB isn't a central bank as in the sense of what the Bank of England is. The UK government never has and never will default on a payment whereas the ECB cannot do€ that as there's several nations of versatile economies, therefore, cross-collateralising the Eurozone. The proposed budget from the ECB for the period between 2021 to 2027 was initially €1.1tn but after review it is now a staggering €1.85tn; the ECB has most certainly reached its limits."
What are your thoughts on China and our future relationship?
"I think there is more of a global awareness towards China now, President Trump pointed this out when he was elected back in 2016 and like it or not, he was right and the global community are waking up to this now. It beggars belief that the EU have signed an investment agreement with China after everything which has been going on but I do think global awareness, especially on trade is better now, as we can see with the China Research Group in Parliament and the Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill. The Uyghurs have had it terrible in China and attention needs to be drawn to this and we cannot let the Chinese government get away with it."