Liam Halligan and releasing the handbrake.

On 28 March, a year and a day before the UK is due to leave the EU, The Bruges Group was addressed by John Redwood and Liam Halligan. The former has been on this blog fairly recently, speaking at another event: the latter we will hear today.

Liam Halligan is co-author, with Gerard Lyons, of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense – Building a Post-Brexit Economy for All. The foreword was written by Gisela Stuart who was featured on this blog just last week.

If you glance at a summary of his career you will be in no doubt as to how highly regarded Halligan is, not only as an economist but as a journalist, author and broadcaster. In other words, not only does he know his stuff but he can communicate it. Nevertheless, addressing a live audience is quite different from those other media. Let’s watch.

[A little warning: the fx mic recording the audience reaction is turned too high at the beginning. Therefore turn your volume down before you start the video, and then up again after the applause.]

I’m not a fan of lengthy preambles, favouring what I call the Bald Opening (among other things it’s counter-intuitively good for the control of nerves). Nevertheless here the first 90 seconds is the best part of the opening, because Halligan is not staring at bloody paper. He may be a communicator and he has obviously learnt how to manage a round of applause, but he hasn’t been properly taught how to speak in public if he has to use notes or a script.

That’s not just my beating an idealogical drum: look for yourself how the best, most fluent, most engaging and compelling bits are the parenthetic sections where he lifts his eyes to the audience and just talks. Yes I know he reads very expressively, and he gets some well-deserved laughs, but it would have been even better without the paper. Hampered by paper it’s as if he is driving a car with the handbrake on. If he reads this he won’t believe it – they never do till I prove it to them – but it’s true.

And this speech deserves to be driven without the handbrake on, because it is a good and valuable speech. It has strong well-argued messages, full of properly researched data, everything such a speech should have … except the handbrake is on.

At 17:35, “I want to talk a little bit about No Deal…” he stops reading for more than a minute and a half, and indeed for some periods for the rest of the speech. Even when his eyes go down to the lectern he’s not always reading. You can tell by the tone of his voice, by his using spoken, as distinct from written, English – it’s a subtly different language – that this is Halligan himself speaking, not regurgitating something he’d written earlier. And those periods are always better.

This speech is nearly eight months old and Halligan was saying that though No Deal was not to be feared, an FTA was preferable. I wonder if he’d still say so. For me that argument has receded. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-Finance Minister, has repeatedly warned that the EU is not to be negotiated with; and day by day he is proved right. It now seems to me that a deal – any deal – has now become suspect if it is negotiated before we have left the EU.

WTO may mean some short-term disruption, but it also means…

  • no £39bn
  • no 585 pages of legalese to be combed through for hidden traps (taking time that could be better spent, preparing for WTO)
  • no small print
  • no more pretending that the Northern Irish border is a problem
  • and we might speculate on how long it will then be before the EU comes hammering on our door for an FTA.

And also, open to the world, the UK can then release its own handbrake.