PHOTO: The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, campaigning for Britain’s exit from the European Union

One might be surprised that a prominent British politician would begin a comment on US President Barack Obama with a historical lie. One might not foresee an ethnic slur against the American leader.

But that is exactly what happened last week when the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, used The Sun — a tabloid better known for topless Page 3 Girls and headlines like “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” — to denounce Obama’s visit to Britain.

Johnson opened with the claim that the White House, “on Day One of the Obama Administration”, had returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy in Washington.

Clearly this was a blatant display of Obama’s hostility to Britain. Except it’s not true. Johnson — who claims to be a historian — had repeated a long-running hoax, spread by Obama’s dedicated opponents in the US. The President had simply moved the Churchill bust to another spot, outside the Treaty Room, while putting one of Martin Luther King on his desk.

But the truth would not do for Boris, who combined his tall tale with an ethnic swipe and an insinuation that Obama is viscerally anti-British:

Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.

Bashing Obama

Johnson’s motive for the personal attack was to deny any legitimacy for Obama’s comments about Britain’s June 23 referendum on membership of the European Union. The Mayor had launched a pre-emptive assault in mid-March, declaring any remarks by the President would be a “piece of outrageous and exorbitant hypocrisy” with “wholly fallacious” arguments.

With Obama’s trip a reality last week, complete with a tribute to the Queen’s 90th birthday and high-profile press appearance with Prime Minister David Cameron, Boris renewed his attack in The Sun. Invoking an anti-democratic European Union that would horrify Churchill, he chided the President:

For the United States to tell us in the UK that we must surrender control of so much of our democracy – it is a breathtaking example of the principle of do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do.

It is incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes it is downright hypocritical.

But in the end, the significance of Johnson’s pose is not in the gutter swipes and flag-wrapped appeal to sovereignty. It is not only in his own near-laughable hypocrisy in his conclusion — having bashed the US President, he assures that “Brexit” means Britons will “be even better and more valuable allies of the United States”.

No, the political story is in why Johnson chose these tactics — not to engage with the issues in the referendum and Obama’s remarks, but to avoid them.

Avoiding the Economic Debate

In his Sun diatribe, Johnson never refers to the British economy, and thus the economic effects of a departure from the EU. He never talks about trade, investment, productivity, or the impact on London’s financial sector.

He never does so because that is difficult terrain for Brexit.

All the major studies of the economic consequences of the referendum draw this conclusion: Britain will suffer a significant loss in GDP if it leaves the EU, compared to where it would be in 2020 or 2030 if it remained in the Union.

A detailed study of academic literature, carried out for the Confederation of British Industry, concluded that “the mid-range estimate” of the benefits of EU membership is 4% to 5% of GDP — £2,700 to £3,300 per household.

An economic model from PriceWaterhouseCoopers projected Brexit’s relative loss at 5% of GDP by 2020, costing £100 billion overall, leaving the average household up to £3,700 worse off, and losing 950,000 jobs.

The UK Treasury’s model, published this month, puts the relative cost of Brexit at up to 6.2% of GDP or £4,300 per household by 2030.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued its report this week that the loss would be £2,200, per household by 2020.

Angel Gurría, the OECD’s Secretary-General, said of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said at the London School of Economics that Brexit’s campaign was “delusional” about the economics:

The UK is much stronger as a part of Europe, and Europe is much stronger with the UK as a driving force. There is no upside for the UK in Brexit….No one should have to pay the Brexit tax.

No Good Brexit Answer

Brexit’s proponents have used the excuse that they cannot directly respond to the reports because it is not possible to model a scenario — Britain out of the EU — which has not occurred.

That is a weak defense, for Brexit have not put out any economic assessment built upon the current situation. They have not explained how trade can expand, based on Britain’s relations both with the European Union and with countries beyond it. They have not addressed how investment, including foreign direct investment, will be sustained. They have not looked at the cost of drafting myriad contracts, legal provisions, and regulations needed if Britain leaves the framework of EU membership.

The Brexit camp utters platitudes such as “the UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy” and “everyone wants to trade with Britain”. But those campaign sound-bites are no substitute for an engagement with the reality of commercial, financial, and trade relationships.

A glimpse of that reality was in Obama’s statement last week:

I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done….

The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.

Boris Johnson could have met that challenge with an economic explanation for Brexit. He didn’t, probably because he couldn’t. Instead, he reached for the historical lie and the jibe at a President’s ethnicity.

Perhaps a quote from Churchill, whose bust is still in the White House, is in order:

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.