In March 2003, 149 MPs voted against the Iraq war. They comprised the then much bigger Liberal Democrat party, the then much smaller SNP, 84 Labour MPs, Plaid and the SDLP, and the odd Conservative. Those voting against triggering Article 50 comprised the LibDems, the SNP, 47 Labour MPs, Plaid, the SDLP, one Green and a single Conservative. Is the similarity between these votes just a coincidence? I want to suggest not.
Let us begin by making an obvious point. You may think Iraq is different because so many lives were lost in the chaos after the war. But how many lives will be brought to a premature end because Brexit means we will have to live with an NHS in permanent crisis? Many people have not realised what a disaster Brexit could turn out to be. With a hard Brexit the CEP estimates an eventual cost of almost 10% of GDP each year.  That is huge: much bigger than the loss in real incomes already experienced as a result of the Brexit induced sterling depreciation. That alone could mean a 10% cut in money available for the NHS, if the share of NHS spending in GDP remained constant. But it is worse than that. If immigration falls, as the OBR expects it to, and because immigration improves the public finances, the cut in NHS spending could be a lot greater than 10%. Of course it may turn out to be not quite as bad as that, but we need to ask what exactly is the point of taking such a huge risk, just as people now ask what was the point of the Iraq war?
Iraq involved the US and the UK, whereas Brexit is just a UK affair. But think of the following mapping. The Neocons who pushed for the war are like the Brexiteers. May is George Bush, and Corbyn is Blair. Whereas Blair felt he had to go along with Bush, he also must have felt that getting rid of Saddam would be no bad thing. Whereas Corbyn and many MPs feel they have to follow the referendum result, Corbyn may also think that leaving the EU is no bad thing.
Does the referendum not make the two events distinct? The first point to make is that a clear majority of UK popular opinion (and US opinion) supported the war. Everyone of Murdoch’s papers around the world strongly supported it. However a minority of people were passionate in their desire for the war not to happen, with many taking part in the largest demonstration the UK had ever seen.
More importantly, the referendum was advisory, whatever politicians may have said. After an election the opposition does not feel obliged to start voting for all the government’s policies that they used to oppose? The idea that the Brexiteers, if they had narrowly lost, would have said ‘fair enough, we will keep quiet for 30 years’ is laughable. Most people voting Leave expect to be no worse off as a result, and would not have voted Leave if they thought otherwise. In these circumstances, the idea that the 52% majority will remain the ‘will of the people’ for very long is ridiculous.
The most important similarity between Iraq and Brexit is that both were huge decisions that were politically driven and which went against the available evidence. Hans Blix, who had been in Iraq looking for chemical weapons, thought it was a huge mistake. Chicot confirmed that the UK chose to invade Iraq “before peaceful options for disarmament” had been exhausted. Military action was “not a last resort”. The British knew that there were no serious plans for post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, but we joined Bush’s war nevertheless. It was not just a disaster, it was also a widely predicted disaster. Brexit is an almost universally predicted disaster among experts. For both Blair and Corbyn, their own misguided political views overrode expert opinion.
Just as Iraq destroyed Blair’s support among Labour party members, Brexit is likely to do the same to Corbyn. I expect the process will continue steadily over time, as bad Brexit news is greeted by Labour ministers not with a confident and resounding I told you so, but rather with feeble claims that May is enacting the wrong kind of Brexit. As the popular tide turns on Brexit, just as it did on Iraq (a majority of people now think they were always against the war), the opportunity Labour has missed by supporting Brexit will become clear. One difference is that Blair had enough popularity in the country to win a general election after Iraq, but the support of Labour Party members is pretty well all the political capital Corbyn has.
Thus the only interesting question is when Corbyn will go, and what the manner of his departure will be. I surprised a few people by saying in an earlier post that he needed to stay on for a while if we were to have any chance of stopping Brexit. My reasoning is as follows. The longer he stays, the greater will be the opportunity for the LibDems to achieve some eye catching victories like Richmond. (In the May council elections, for example.) Only then will it become clear to MPs from all parties that a Brexit backlash is the real threat, not UKIP winning in Labour heartlands. At present they and political commentators are in a Westminster bubble which is strongly influenced by the pro-Brexit press. That bubble needs to be pricked by events. If Labour switch leader and start opposing Brexit too soon, any Conservative losses could be put down to countless factors. It is vital that that a significant number of MPs begin to fear that a Brexit backlash will lose them their seat. Once (and if) that change in perception comes about, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
 This estimate is produced by a team led by one of our top applied economists, John Van Reenen, who has just moved to MIT.