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28 November 2022

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have capitulated to the Brexit zealots

The public now believes that the UK was wrong to leave the EU – but the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring them.

By Martin Fletcher

Is that it?

A week ago “senior government sources” told the Sunday Times that they wanted to put the UK on a path to a “Swiss-style relationship” with the European Union over the next decade, by which they meant developing closer economic ties. “I think we will be doing everything we can proactively within our power to make changes to improve things when it comes to the EU,” said one.

Cue pandemonium. The Brexit ayatollahs and their megaphones in the tabloid press were outraged by such heresy (conveniently forgetting that long ago, during the 2016 referendum, they had themselves envisaged Swiss or Norwegian-style relationships with the EU). 

“A grave error,” Jacob Rees-Mogg fumed. “Remainers are softening us up to rejoin the EU,” David Frost warned. Nigel Farage threatened yet another return to front-line politics as he cautioned against any “softening of our relationship with the bully boys of Brussels”. The Daily Mail’s front page proclaimed: “Don’t betray us on Brexit”, while the Daily Express splashed on a story headlined “Fury at ‘Absurd Idea’ to go soft on Brexit”.

Rishi Sunak folded in an instant. “I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit. I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities for the country,” he insisted the day after the story appeared. No 10 dismissed it as “categorically untrue”.

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Keir Starmer also sought to kill the story stone dead. Pursuing the Swiss route would “lead to years more wrangling, years more uncertainty”, he said. Indeed, he went further by pledging that the UK would not seek to rejoin the single market under a Labour government, and ruling out any return to the free movement of people between the EU and Britain – a policy he supported three years ago.

Thus any chance of a mature, healthy debate on Britain’s future relations with the giant trading bloc across the English Channel has been nixed, and it seems we are doomed to maintain our implacable hostility to all things European no matter how much damage is wreaked on our collapsing economy. 

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Worse, the ayatollahs now regard Sunak with deep suspicion. They will be watching the Prime Minister’s every move for further signs of apostasy. That will severely limit his scope for compromise in resolving the UK’s fraught stand-off with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol. It will make it much harder for Sunak to jettison Rees-Mogg’s absurd Retained EU Law bill, which imposes on Whitehall the impossible task of removing 4,000 pieces of EU-derived law from the statute books by the end of next year.

On narrow, short-term tactical grounds, Sunak’s capitulation to his party’s Brexit fundamentalists is understandable. He is desperately seeking to retain the support of those Red Wall voters in the north and Midlands who voted so heavily for Brexit in 2016, and to ward off any mass defection of Tory Brexiteers to a resurgent Farage-led Reform Party. Starmer is equally desperate to win back those Red Wall voters who defected to Boris Johnson’s Tories in the 2019 general election, but as time goes on the two leaders’ positions are surely becoming increasingly untenable.

[See also: What does the NHS winter crisis mean for patients?]

The Brexiteers’ claim to represent the “will of the people” is based on a referendum that they won very narrowly more than six years ago, on the basis of promises that they have manifestly failed to deliver.

Where are those “sunlit uplands”? Where are all those vaunted “Brexit freedoms” and “Brexit benefits”? Where are all those fantastic trade deals, that “pent-up tidal wave of investment”, that “bonfire of regulations” that was going to unleash the British economy? Where is the extra £350m-a-week for the NHS? In what conceivable sense – as record numbers of legal and illegal immigrants arrive in Britain – have we “taken back control”?

Thousands of small and medium-sized businesses have ceased exporting to Europe because of Brexit red tape. Labour shortages are hampering industry. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the UK’s GDP will fall 4 per cent in the long term as a result of us leaving the EU, and that the country’s “trade intensity” (a measure of its integration with the world economy) by 15 per cent.

Voters are not stupid. As harsh realities hit home, disillusion is setting in. Millions are realising that they were duped by con men like Johnson and Farage, and no longer buy the government’s claim that Covid-19 and the Ukraine war are solely responsible for Britain’s present mess. The latest YouGov poll shows a record 56 per cent now believe we were wrong to leave and a mere 32 per cent still clinging to the faith, with fully a fifth of Leavers expressing “Bregret”.

That leaves the country’s two main parties in an absurd position. In their desperation to court a diminishing number of Brexit-supporting Red Wall voters, they are ignoring a pronounced sea change in public opinion. They are maintaining an uncompromising stance on Brexit that is increasingly at odds with the majority view. And that gulf is only going to widen as living standards deteriorate and younger europhiles replace elderly eurosceptics on the electoral roll.

The trend is in one direction only. Sooner or later the polls are going to show 60 per cent of the British public think Brexit was a mistake, with only 30 per cent in favour. Where will that leave Sunak and Starmer? 

The truth is that the Brexit ayatollahs may make a lot of noise, but they speak for a shrinking constituency and by seeking to appease them Sunak is not just damaging the national interest but leading his party down an electoral cul-de-sac. 

Nobody – not even a fanatical Remainer such as myself – is talking about holding another referendum in the remotely foreseeable future, or rejoining the EU, but the time is surely ripe for ending six years of unremitting hostility towards Brussels, for resetting relations with our former friends and allies and launching an era of mutually beneficial cooperation. We should embrace, for example, the new European Political Community championed by France’s president Emmanuel Macron.

The Tories face probable defeat at the next election in any case, so Sunak should take a gamble. The Prime Minister should do what he privately knows to be the right thing. At a time when he is much more popular than his party, he should challenge the zealots who have held it hostage for far too long and defy them to depose yet another leader. 

He should take the blasphemous step of admitting Brexit’s costly failures and call for a change of direction. He should lead with conviction, not cravenly follow, and so should Starmer. The first to do so might find themselves handsomely rewarded by the silent majority come the next election.

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs more than a good tone to beat Labour]