Fatigue with MPs flinging about “facts” has pushed the Brexit debate inevitably onto immigration – but the Remain camp has yet to flag up all the benefits of past cooperation with the EU

Amid all the nonsense, exaggeration and depressing rudeness generated by the referendum debate, the phrase that most chilled my blood, as it well might any health professional’s, was one that fell from the Oxford-educated lips of Michael Gove. “The people of this country have had enough of experts,” the justice secretary declared on TV.

In the year of Donald Trump’s candidacy, with ignorance and bombast fuelling campaign rhetoric, I fear Mr Gove may be right. He spoke as the Brexit campaign shifted the weight of its own campaign to the one advocated all along by the less scrupulous, Farage-ist Leave.EU faction: immigration.

The NHS (52,000 EU employees?) and local authority social care (70,000?) cannot be indifferent to any such threat to an important source of manpower. Ritual protests were duly made that the NHS depends on the kindness of such strangers. Five million extra patients in barely a decade, most of the increase immigration-driven, more than outweighs the benefits of foreign doctors and nurses, came the Brexiteers’ reply.

They have a point. It resonated with millions voting for leave for reasons often far removed from crude racism towards Poles or Pakistanis: jobs, housing and public services feel the strain locally, whatever those experts tell us about national benefits. That is what Gove – the cerebral populist’s dog whistle – was saying.

But both sides have made telling points. The question at the end of the campaign remains as it was before: do the speculative benefits of “sovereignty”, of “taking back control” over trade deals and (in theory) migrant flows, outweigh the more tangible risks of disruptive separation? Or, as a Fleet Street wit put it, do you really think that after a messy EU divorce, you can still expect “sex with the ex”?

Benefits versus obstruction

The overwhelming weight of expert opinion, medical and scientific researchers, public health officials, assorted medical bodies and Jeremy Hunt’s Praetorian Guard at the Department of Health (Mr Hunt has said little on Remain’s behalf) rejects Brexit. Benefits taken for granted outweigh frequent irritation and occasional obstruction. “It can’t be any worse”? Oh yes, it can.

Yet expert opinion ought to embrace more humility than it routinely does. Many were wrong on sterling joining the euro. More missed the banking crash. Medical experts routinely overturn their own advice, on sugar versus fats, for example – advice that has done harm. It is not all the shrill media’s fault. When every voter can dial Google, we need to improve the way we do interactive, elite-public dialogue.

‘Waverers among NHS staff and patients will have done well to ponder what Brexiteers want for a “liberated” NHS’

Economic disappointment for millions, job-devouring and disruptive technologies, as well as Chinese imports, have made an easy scapegoat out of the mass migration northwards. Rich states and societies have not handled the challenge well.

“Project Fear” is a crude way of framing a risk-averse argument. That is what last-minute initiatives from David Cameron and assorted allies have been about. When voters contemplate a leap in the dark, they often decide not to risk a broken ankle and step back, as they did in Scotland.

Finger in the wind time

I thought George Osborne’s threatened £30bn of emergency budget cuts – much of it falling on the NHS – crude. The chancellor cannot meaningfully know how bad a post-Brexit market panic would be for interest rates, sterling or tax revenues.

Nor can the Economist Intelligence Unit sensibly assert that healthcare spending will be £135 per head less by 2020. Or even Labour’s sensible health spokesman, Heidi Alexander, that a post-Brexit slump will punch a £10.5bn hole in the NHS budget. We don’t know.

‘I’m more surprised than disappointed that Brexit has not made more of longstanding NHS frustrations over the EU’s working time directive’

But by the same token, Messers Gove and Boris Johnson cannot breezily declare that £8bn a year – £100m a week (£5bn) in some versions – “saved” from the UK’s EU budget contributions will be spent on healthcare.

What we can say with confidence is the Brexit’s battlebus claim that £350m a week goes to Brussels is more than double the actual figure. In any case, the Brexiteers have already spent their “savings” many times over.

I have been genuinely disappointed, as distinct from surprised, that more has not been made by Remain of the benefits that flow from EU cooperation over public health and drug regulation, or Brussels cattleprods over dirty water, health and safety or disability rights. More surprised than disappointed that Brexit has not made more of longstanding NHS frustrations over the EU’s working time directive, which still buggers up junior doctor rotas and training.

But waverers among NHS staff and patients will have done well to ponder what Brexiteers want for a “liberated” British healthcare system. Farage is not the only free market advocate to say the model is unsustainable. John Redwood and others say the same, more subtly for fear of scaring Labour Brexit converts who want more social protection, not less. Be careful what you wish for.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian.