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31 October 2022

Rishi Sunak must abandon the lie that Brexit has been good for the UK

The Prime Minister should start by admitting the damage that leaving the EU has done – and then begin to fix it.

By Martin Fletcher

Rishi Sunak scorns “fairy-tale” economics. He promises to govern with openness, integrity and professionalism, and to put economic stability at the heart of his agenda. If he means what he says, he should start by confronting the Big Lie that has poisoned British politics for the past six years – that Brexit is good for the UK.

Sunak is a clever man. He was chancellor for more than two years. He’s a master of spreadsheets and statistics. He must know that while Covid-19 and the Ukraine war have inflicted great economic damage on this country, Brexit is also responsible for the “profound economic crisis” it now faces.

How could it not be? Leaving the EU has greatly complicated our trade with the vast bloc of 27 countries and 450 million consumers just across the English Channel. It has demonstrably disrupted supply chains, deterred investment, caused serious labour shortages, created whole new layers of red tape and much more besides.

The evidence – and Sunak professes to favour evidence-based policy-making – is everywhere. Read the business pages any day. Ask anyone in Britain’s car-making, financial services, hospitality, care, health, agricultural or fishing industries. Consult the people who run small businesses, university chiefs, artists and scientists. 

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development expects the UK to have the lowest growth of any major economy except Russia next year. The Office for Budget Responsibility believes Brexit will reduce Britain’s long-run GDP by 4 per cent. That is a huge hit, and one that will greatly inhibit governments’ ability to fund decent public services.

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Nor is the damage that Brexit has wrought on the nation just economic, as Sunak must also know. This great tumour at the heart of Britain’s malaise has spawned any number of malignant secondaries in the body politic.

It has weakened the Union, destabilised Northern Ireland and diminished our international stature. It has soured relations with former friends and allies. It has destroyed opportunities for the young. It has consumed huge amounts of government time, money and attention while other pressing problems have been neglected.

It has undermined good governance in other ways, too. It has prompted successive prime ministers to tell further lies to conceal the original sin, to break domestic and international laws, to purge good men and women while promoting loyalist mediocrities, to create scapegoats for Brexit’s failures, to wage culture wars to divert attention, to pander to the hard right, and to govern through gimmickry, sloganeering and jingoistic populism.

[See also: Do voters now want to reverse Brexit?]

Meanwhile, all those Brexit benefits we were promised are hard to discern unless you count the restoration of imperial measurements and blue passports. What happened to the sunlit uplands? In what sense have we “taken back control”? What happened to the plethora of trade deals that were going to offset our departure from the EU’s single market? Where is the extra money for the NHS, the cheaper food, the lower taxes, the better services? As for regaining our “sovereignty”, the limitations of that notion were cruelly exposed by the markets’ reaction to Liz Truss’s catastrophic mini-Budget.

It is extraordinary to remember that in 2015 leaving the EU was the official policy of not a single political party except Nigel Farage’s Ukip. In fact the idea was widely regarded as bonkers. Since then it has become utterly taboo to question the wisdom of doing so, with even Keir Starmer joining the conspiracy of silence for fear of alienating Red Wall voters.

Indeed, three successive Conservative prime ministers, each beholden to the right-wing zealots of the parliamentary European Research Group, have knowingly pursued a policy that they privately knew to be inimical to the country’s interests.

We know Theresa May knew Brexit was bad for Britain because she voted against it. We strongly suspect that Boris Johnson knew Brexit was bad for Britain, but did not care because he had much more to gain politically by championing it. Truss knew Brexit was bad for Britain because she argued forcefully for Remain during the 2016 referendum, only switching sides when Leave won and it became politically expedient for her to do so.

The question now is whether Sunak will become the fourth consecutive prime minister to perpetuate the Big Lie, and the portents are not good. 

He voted enthusiastically for Brexit in 2016. During this summer’s leadership contest with Truss he refused even to admit that the nightmarish queues at Dover were a consequence of Brexit. In his first speech as Prime Minister he spoke of “building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit”. Publicly, at least, he is still supporting the junking of the Northern Ireland protocol – which puts a trade border in the Irish Sea – and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s absurd, impractical bill to render 2,400 pieces of EU-derived legislation obsolete by the end of 2023.

But Sunak is no fool. He knows that restoring Britain’s prosperity and maintaining Brexit purity are ultimately incompatible. He does not want to be the fifth failed Conservative prime minister in a row. Of course he wouldn’t seek to reverse Brexit, or to rejoin the single market or customs union, but there are steps he could take to limit the damage.

He could start by acknowledging the problems that Brexit has caused to British businesses and seeking ways to ameliorate them. He could defy the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland by accepting the protocol, but negotiating with Brussels to make it less burdensome. He could seek better relations with the European Union in general, and France in particular, instead of picking endless silly battles with them as Johnson did. He could cease demonising “Remoaners” and the “metropolitan elite” and accept that they too have Britain’s best interests at heart. He could encourage a calmer, more honest and less acrimonious debate about the way forward. 

I doubt Sunak would be averse to any of those steps, but they would be politically risky. He would have to face down the Brexit “Spartans” within his party. But if ever there was a time to perform such a valuable service to his country it is now. He has been Prime Minister barely a week. He is the third this year, and the fifth in six years. For the Conservatives to seek to remove him this side of the next general election would be almost unthinkable. 

And who knows? A Brexit rethink might just prove a vote-winner.

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak U-turn on Cop27?]

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