- Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says Brexit will be "damaging" to the UK economy.
- He says it "just has to make us worse off. How much worse off we don't know."
- Brexit is a tradeoff, he tells Business Insider, in which the country has to accept an economic hit in order to regain control over its borders.
LONDON — Back in 2015, before the general election in the UK which returned prime minister David Cameron to Downing Street, The Guardian published a " list of the people that matter" in the runup to the vote.
These were the individuals with voices so powerful they "will have a bearing on the result on polling day," The Guardian said. That list in full was: David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon ... and Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson.
Two years later and only Johnson and Sturgeon are still standing.
You've probably never heard of Johnson. But you are likely familiar with his work. Before every election, and after every UK government budget, the IFS presents an independent analysis of what it believes the actual effect of the parties' economic promises will be.
It is the first institution that journalists — and other economists — turn to for a plain-English take, with no spin, on what the chancellor (or the shadow chancellor) has proposed.
The prime minister and the leader of the opposition frequently cite IFS statistics at prime minister's question time, which gives you an idea of the extent to which Johnson's IFS shapes economic debate in the UK.
Last November, for instance, after Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered his autumn budget, it was Johnson's analysis that shaped the serious headlines: the UK's GDP per capita would be the worst of the major global economies, and that "Less than two years after [former chancellor George Osborne] was promising a surplus of Â£10 billion in 2019-20, Mr Hammond is promising a deficit of Â£35 billion falling, rather optimistically, to Â£25 billion by 2022-23."
With Europe's finance ministers at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Business Insider asked Johnson about the issue that will dominate their conversation: Brexit.
Is there anything good about Brexit, we asked.
"Um," he pauses. "It's hard to think of one."
Some agriculture reforms perhaps, or tinkering around the edges of Britain's financial regulations, he said. But that's it.
"What Brexit is essentially about is making trade more difficult with our nearest, biggest and richest neighbour.
"That in the end, that is the economics of Brexit. We are withdrawing from a Single Market, presumably, and withdrawing from a customs union, presumably, and that just has to make us worse off.
"How much worse off we don't know. It might be a relatively small amount. Hopefully a good deal less traumatic than the  financial crisis."
Johnson isn't speaking as a "remoaner." He is trying to be independent, speaking purely as an economist.
"All economists, with one or two very ideologically aligned exceptions, all economists take the view that from an economic point of view Brexit is going to be damaging.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about how damaging," he says.
"If you think a sovereign state should have control of its borders — and it's not unreasonable to think a sovereign state ought to have control of its borders — then you need to be outside the EU," he says.
"But there is a cost to that, an economic cost," he says. "What both sides are wrong about is suggesting you can have your cake and eat it, to coin a phrase."