PRESSURE on the Conservative Government to sort out its sorry Brexit shambles looked to be high indeed as the UK entered this crunch week in its hugely protracted negotiations with the European Union on a future trade deal.

Many arch-Brexiters are unlikely to feel much pressure. Wealthy Tories who have been pushing the European separatist drive would be relatively unaffected by the further major hit to UK gross domestic product from failing to secure a trade deal, and some might even benefit from the dislocation. For many others not in such a privileged and elite position, the ideology of Brexit they have been fed might satisfy them for now – with some delighted to feel more British for some unfathomable reason (given UK sovereignty was never in doubt before this fiasco got under way).

Nonetheless, there is plenty of pressure on Boris Johnson and his Brexit-minded Cabinet to sort out their mess.

Among the public, there are already worries about a return to empty supermarket shelves, with the possibility that a no-deal Brexit at the year-end will add to major difficulties from a resurgence of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

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Then there is people’s obvious desire to avoid further grim damage to an economy and living standards already hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, with much worse to come as unemployment surges and with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s job support scheme announced last week looking woefully inadequate.

Mr Johnson declared earlier this month that leaving the European single market with no deal when the transition period ends on December 31, if the trade talks with the EU were to collapse, would still be a “good outcome” for the UK.

The Confederation of British Industry, and UK businesses, seem to disagree.

Around 77 per cent of UK businesses want a deal to be agreed, a survey published over the weekend by the CBI shows. Only 4% say they prefer a no-deal scenario. This survey also reveals that the effect of the pandemic has lessened businesses’ ability to prepare for Brexit. Around 47% said the impact of dealing with Covid-19 had affected their preparations negatively.

CBI director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn talked about how the Brexit discussions were entering the “eleventh hour” this week. She said: “A deal can and must be made.”

Dame Carolyn warned that “businesses face a hat-trick of unprecedented challenges: rebuilding from the first wave of Covid-19, dealing with the resurgence of the virus and preparing for significant changes to the UK’s trading relationship with the EU”.

She added: “More than three-quarters of businesses want to see a deal that will support people’s jobs and livelihoods. This matters for firms and communities across Europe. For the whole continent, the pandemic has diminished firms’ ability to prepare for an abrupt interruption of restrictions on trade and movement between the UK and the EU.”

Dame Carolyn talked about how a “good deal” would “keep UK firms competitive by minimising red tape and extra costs, freeing much-needed time and resource to overcome the difficult times ahead”.

And this brings us back to the big truth of Brexit. At this point, the UK is fighting to win the consolation prize of a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Such a deal is the Conservative Government’s stated ambition in these talks, even if Brexit-minded ministers have at times signalled an alarming indifference toward whether or not there is an agreement. Such indifference has appeared alarmingly genuine, seemingly going way beyond mere negotiating bravado.

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The fact of the matter is that, even if a major free trade deal can be done, a huge amount of the economic damage for the UK is already set in stone with the Tory Brexiters’ determination to leave the European single market no matter what.

If Leavers do not believe this, they should look at the forecasts of the effects of Brexit under various scenarios drawn up by the Theresa May government. Some may feel a reminder of these forecasts is tiresome but the projections do point to the reality of the situation, which contrasts dramatically with Brexiters’ bluster.

Losing free movement of people between the UK and EU, with all the economic as well as societal benefits that brings, and the end of truly frictionless trade with the biggest free trade bloc in the world clearly constitute a very big deal indeed. And the May government forecasts show that.

The greatest damage obviously arises from a no-deal outcome. However, the impact is huge under any circumstances.

The May government forecasts, published in November 2018, show, even if there is no change to migration arrangements, UK GDP in 15 years’ time under a no-deal Brexit scenario would be 7.7% lower than if we had stayed in the EU.

The Tories, of course, plan to clamp down on immigration dramatically, and have legislated to that effect. On the basis there is zero net inflow of workers to the UK from European Economic Area countries, the forecasts from the May government have it that GDP in 15 years’ time would in a no-deal exit be around 9.3% lower than in a scenario in which the UK had remained in the EU.

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If the UK were to conclude an average free trade agreement with the EU, the hit to GDP would be 6.7% on the scenario of zero net inflow of EEA workers, according to the forecasts. And even with no change to migration arrangements, which is now clearly an over-optimistic scenario, the hit to UK GDP even with the securing of an average free trade agreement is 4.9%.

These are all huge numbers. They show that, even if the UK Government does at this late stage mitigate the damage by securing a free trade deal, the hit to the economy will still be very large.

To put these numbers in perspective, the Conservative Government notes in its own paper on its sought-after trade deal with the US that such an agreement could, in the longer term, boost UK GDP by around 0.07% or 0.16% under two different scenarios.

There seems to remain a huge problem of perception among Tory Brexiters, and other Leavers, in the form of a remarkable over-estimation of the UK’s clout on the international stage. Of course, the UK remains a large economy and influential in world affairs, but the days of Empire have long gone and the country is not the power it once was.

In this regard, a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI and published on Monday made very interesting reading. The poll, conducted for the EU-UK Forum, found 49% of Britons believe the country is a force for good in the world, down 10 points since April last year.

It showed around 41% of Britons believe the country should punch above its weight in world affairs, which is little changed from last year, although the proportion disagreeing with this assertion has risen from 18% to 24%.

Meanwhile, 38% believe that “Britain should stop pretending it is an important power in the world”, up five points from a year ago, with the proportion disagreeing having fallen from 35% to 28%. Even though four in five think maintaining a close relationship with the EU is important in spite of Brexit, only 39% of people now think that is likely, down 13 points since April 2019. That is a gloomy, but perhaps realistic, finding. After all, even if a free trade agreement is concluded, the UK has surely tested the patience of the EU with its bizarre Brexit crusade.

And that is before we even get to the Conservative Government’s decision to bring forward legislation which could override key elements of the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU, crucially the Northern Ireland protocol. This protocol was formulated painstakingly to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border on the island, and creates a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland, to avoid checks and controls on the island, will be required to apply EU customs rules and align with a list of single-market regulations.

The UK has, following its technical Brexit on January 31, been protected from the actual effects by the transition agreement which has kept the country part of the European single market.

At this crunch point on the future relationship with the EU, the UK Government has much that it should be reflecting on.

The Conservative Government should look back at the May government forecasts, in terms of the economic reality of the situation. It should weigh whether it might just be a good idea to mitigate the economic damage from Brexit as much as possible given what has already happened, and what is to come, from the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on output and living standards. And, as it does so, it should reflect on its own perceptions of the UK’s place in the world, and whether these might be out of date.

And it should do all of these things rather quickly. The clock is ticking. Ominously.