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23 June 2022

Brexit’s critics have been vindicated – but there are no easy answers

While the best solution to the UK’s woes is to rejoin, neither the British public nor the EU is ready for that debate.

By David Gauke

Six years on from the Brexit referendum, and no one is happy. Leaving the EU was an inherently bad idea, as plenty of us said at the time, but at least those who were victorious might look back on the result with a sense of pride and pleasure. Instead, there is a noticeable absence of any sense of celebration by those who won.

The economic damage caused by Brexit is no longer obscured by continued membership and a transition period, a pandemic and a European war – and the findings are depressing.

Trade is down; business investment is flatlining and a weak pound is contributing to a cost-of-living crisis. Whereas the years prior to the referendum saw the UK outperform other G7 economies, we now lag behind. The Office for Budget Responsibility maintains that the long-run impact of Brexit is that GDP will be 4 per cent lower than it would otherwise be, which translates into a lower tax take of £40bn, adding pressure to the public finances.

Advocates of Brexit argue that other factors are to blame – Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and claim that the development of vaccines (which happened while we still had to comply with EU membership rules) and our robust support of President Zelensky (which we could and would have upheld inside the EU) demonstrate the benefits of leaving. But it is obvious even to them that all is not going to plan. We hear complaints about the government being too timid in seizing the Brexit opportunities, how this is a “Remainers’ Brexit” being implemented by a defeatist elite unable or unwilling to embrace the new freedoms. Nigel Farage’s verdict is “could do better”.  

It is also the Leave side of the debate that is seeking to reopen Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal by changing fundamentally the Northern Ireland protocol, either by negotiation or by unilateral legislation.

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In short, the position of many Brexiteers is that, yes, Brexit is going badly but it has not been properly tried yet. It is the same argument that Marxists have used for the past century.

At least there is a willingness to talk about the subject even if the contributions consist of history-rewriting, denialism, buck-passing, wishful thinking and indulging in fantasies. Those political parties who want a closer and more constructive relationship with the EU would rather the issue went away. They are not going to get their way. As the influential deputy chief of staff at No 10, David Canzini, was reported as telling Downing Street staff, “Anyone who doesn’t think the next election is about Brexit should leave the room.” The Conservatives – at least, if led by Johnson – will put Brexit at the heart of their re-election campaign.

I have long been critical of Labour’s refusal to properly engage in this issue but, to be fair, one can see the electoral argument. The swing voters in the swing constituencies were committed Leavers and there is little evidence that these voters have substantially changed their views.

[See also: Labour must end its denial over Brexit]

There is a second problem, however, that reminds me of the period when Theresa May was trying to get her deal through. When it comes to finding a compromise between full membership and a hard Brexit, the middle ground is hard to defend. That is not to say that it is wrong (the country would have been better placed today had the May deal got through), but a compromise position is rarely anyone’s first choice.

If you suggest alignment in some areas – on agricultural produce, for example –in order to reduce border frictions, Leavers will argue that you are surrendering sovereignty and destroying the opportunities of trade deals. Remainers, meanwhile, will argue that you should go further and align on other areas. If you do go further, and suggest rejoining the single market, Leavers will be furious that this means the return of freedom of movement and both sides will point out that we will become a rule-taker. That might be good enough for Norway but it is far from ideal for a much larger and more diverse economy such as the UK. Economically, the best answer is to rejoin but neither the British public, nor the EU, is ready for that debate to begin in earnest. Not yet.

The 2016 Brexit debate exposed a divide in temperament among politicians as much as anything else. If the purpose of politics is to solve problems, membership of the EU was – by and large – a useful means to get things done. If, however, politics is about playing a romantic role, extolling uncompromising certainties and pursuing buccaneering adventures, Brexit was for you.  

Six years after taking a leap in the dark and voting to leave the EU, those who worried about the practicalities have been vindicated. But when it comes to what happens next – getting us out of this mess – the problem-solvers are faced with practical and political difficulties while the buccaneers are free to move on to the next chapter of their adventure.  

It is true that no one is content with Brexit, but it is the Brexiteers who are most comfortable in their discontent, almost relieved that their heroic mission – in their eyes – has yet to be completed. Politics is so much easier when you don’t have to face up to reality.

[Follow the latest news from the by-elections in our Live blog: LIVE: Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-election results – New Statesman]

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