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29 July 2022

When will we be able to talk about Brexit again?

The cost of leaving the EU is becoming ever clearer but the Conservatives and Labour have taken a vow of silence.

By Philip Collins

The British political summer has been cancelled as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss tour the country competing to see which of them can offer the more authoritarian, backward-looking vision of Britain to the Conservative Party membership. Keir Starmer has filled the Tory integrity vacuum with a significant speech on economic policy. Yet for all this political activity there is a major question that is going unasked. Brexit has dominated British politics for six years, but it doesn’t make sense for anyone to talk about it.

The Conservative Party is a long way from being able to admit that Brexit is not working out. For some in the party, who simply desired the abstraction of returned sovereignty, Brexit cannot go wrong. If you believe power should reside in Britain then it doesn’t much matter what the practical consequences are. So what if there is a queue of lorries at Dover? You can always pass on the blame to French officials and their irritating habit of stamping our passports, just as we insisted that they should do.

In the debates and hustings of the leadership contest so far Truss and Sunak have not been asked to engage with Brexit in any serious way. In their BBC debate they were asked only one question on it and that was in the one-word answer section. Was Brexit to blame for the queues at Dover, they were asked? Given the nature of their audience they could hardly do anything other than pretend and say no, which is what they both did. At a hustings in Leeds, Truss was asked about businesses that can’t get enough staff but she simply denied that Brexit was the cause.

A party that has invested so much in such a policy cannot yet concede that it might not be all it was supposed to be. The referendum debate was so bitter, and so reduced to cliches such as “Project Fear”, that a lot more time will have to pass before anyone can change their mind. One day a senior figure on the Brexit side of the argument will reflect that it wasn’t, in the event, really worth the candle. It will be a moment reminiscent of the speech Theresa May made in Bournemouth in 2002 in which she told the assembled Conservative Party that the rest of the country regarded it as nasty. In retrospect, this looks like the moment that the Tories began their return to serious politics. It came five years into a spell in opposition. It might require the same this time before any senior Tory dares to broach the obvious.

By then, of course, it may sound like ancient history. The paradox of Brexit was that, politically speaking, it was always a revolution that arrived too slowly. Brexit was not, as the Remain side always characterised it, a “cliff-edge”. It was never going to be as cataclysmic as that, or as fatal. Brexit would have been better described as a long slide down to nowhere. But that does make it hard to capitalise on. It just isn’t often dramatic enough and it is always possible to muddy the causation by pointing to other proximate reasons for economic problems – Covid-19, global growth rates, the war in Ukraine. Just when it comes into view Brexit, like Macavity, disappears again. This is probably the best hope for the Conservative Party. That out of boredom we all simply forget what they did.

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Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of the Labour Party reminding anyone. After being the shadow Brexit secretary who led the campaign for a second referendum, Starmer immediately shut the issue down on becoming leader. It has to be said that he was unequivocally right to do so. In 2019 Brexit was an electoral disaster for Labour. If Starmer is to find his way into Downing Street then the party needs to win back people who voted to leave the European Union but who have since became disillusioned with the Conservatives. Not many of those people have yet concluded that they made a mistake in the referendum so it would be a poor electoral strategy to tell them that they did.

At the same time, Labour’s core vote is still very annoyed about the issue. It is pressing Starmer to say more yet still he resists. In his economic speech last week Starmer did consider Brexit but his remarks were careful and judicious, cleverly designed to alienate nobody. There was none of the fire and brimstone that some of the unrepentant Remainers in the party are demanding. It will be a long while yet before Labour wants to open the Brexit conversation.

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The long silence has in fact been protracted further by the campaign for a second referendum. If the Remain side had simply accepted the Leave vote with good grace and gone quiet for a spell then it might have been possible by now to raise the prospect of rejoining the single market or the customs union. As it is, there is nobody with the authority to make this entirely sensible argument. The absurd second referendum campaign, which never had the slightest chance of securing its objective, has set back the cause of a sensible relationship with Europe by years.

That then provides an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. If there is one advantage of not being a genuine candidate for victory, it is that you can be candid about what is going on. Yet on this, which should be the party’s signature issue, the Lib Dems are not especially vocal. There is a constituency that is available to hear that Brexit is a disaster and the Lib Dems are well placed to bring them together. It is a measure of the oddity of British politics today that nobody can talk about the question that has transformed politics. We shall have to hope that the Liberal Democrats find their voice.

[See also: Tory members are taking an enormous gamble by backing Liz Truss]

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