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21 November 2022

Labour must make sure no one forgets the Tories’ Brexit disaster

More and more people are realising that Brexit is the greatest act of economic self-harm in living memory.

By Martin Fletcher

I recently visited Skegness at the behest of the New European newspaper. Its editors wanted to know whether the Lincolnshire resort, part of a constituency which voted 75.6 per cent for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, still thinks leaving the EU was a good idea. What I found was startling.

Without exception, everyone that I spoke to felt deeply disillusioned: the man in the street, the Conservative mayor, even two former Ukippers who had led the Leave campaign. Most felt they had been sold a complete pup by Conservative politicians like Boris Johnson who used Brexit as a route to power. A few still clung to the faith, but accused the government of failing to implement Brexit properly.

I was not particularly surprised, therefore, by last week’s YouGov poll showing that support for Brexit nationwide has fallen to a record low, with 56 per cent saying we were wrong to leave and a mere 32 per cent saying we were right.

Hardline Brexiteers and their tabloid megaphones reacted furiously to another story in the Sunday Times that the government may seek a “Swiss-style” relationship with the EU. But the indisputable fact is that as the economy implodes and Britain makes common cause with the EU in the war against Russia, they are losing the argument.

Don’t take my word for it. Michael Gove, a leader of the 2016 Leave campaign, admitted to the Financial Times recently: “I ask myself all the time ‘was it the right thing to do?’ ” And Andrew Neil, hardly a soggy liberal, wrote in the Daily Mail that last Thursday’s last Autumn Statement marked “the week that Brexit died”. He explained: “The Government was supposed to create a post-Brexit low-tax, low-regulation, free-wheeling economic environment which would unleash homegrown entrepreneurs and turn Britain into a beacon for foreign investment, with enterprising business folk flooding to our shores. After Thursday, that is not going to happen.”

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Meanwhile Matthew Goodwin, a British academic on the eurosceptic right, wrote last Friday that “this trend of ‘Bregret’ is accelerating”. He suspects we may have another referendum “sooner than we think – particularly after a lost decade of weak growth, declining living standards and a growing sense of national decline become intimately entwined, rightly or wrongly, with the legacy of the vote for Brexit”.

And this was what Piers Morgan tweeted the other day: “It’s time to admit that Brexit has been a disaster, exacerbated by pandemic/war, and have another referendum.”

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Economic and business leaders are also becoming more vociferous at last. At its annual conference in Birmingham this week the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is urging the government to seek better relations with the EU to mitigate Brexit’s adverse consequences. The Office for Budget Responsibility acknowledged last Thursday that Brexit has had a “significant adverse impact” on British trade.

Before the Autumn Statement last week Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, told the Treasury Select Committee that Brexit was one of the “headwinds” damaging the economy. Michael Saunders, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, told Bloomberg that “the UK economy as a whole has been permanently damaged by Brexit”. Simon Wolfson, the Leave-supporting chief executive of the clothing chain Next, complained: “This is not the Brexit I voted for.” 

And up popped George Eustice, the Brexit-backing former environment secretary, to confess that the Australian trade agreement, supposedly one of Brexit’s flagship achievements, was “not actually a very good deal”.

Meanwhile Paris has just overtaken London as Europe’s largest stock market, India has overtaken Britain to become the world’s fifth largest economy, and asylum seekers cross the Channel to the UK in record numbers.

Take back control? Global Britain? World-beating? Brexit dividends? Brexit freedoms? Brexit benefits? How hollow and vainglorious those trite slogans all sound now. Far from receiving an extra £350m a week the NHS is close to collapse. The much-vaunted US trade deal never happened. The “pent-up tidal wave of investment” promised in the Tories’ 2019 manifesto proved equally illusory. “Like some slumbering giant we’re going to rise up and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity,” Johnson declared in his victory speech after that election. Yes, well…

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt know all this, of course, and without explicitly saying so they are changing course. They’re now considering a relaxation of post-Brexit immigration limits to end labour shortages. They’re urgently seeking rapprochement with the EU, France and Ireland, instead of picking silly fights to shore up the Tories’ support in the Red Wall. 

The Prime Minister is desperate to resolve Britain’s damaging dispute with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol. Challenged on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 last Friday, the Chancellor ruled out rejoining the single market but promised to remove trade barriers with the EU. “Unfettered trade” with our neighbours would be “very beneficial to growth”, he acknowledged.

And then there’s the story about Britain seeking an “Swiss-style” relationship with the EU, meaning accepting a more liberal migration regime and making payments to the EU budget in return for freer trade. “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,” a source told the Sunday Times. Tory Brexiteers were furious. No 10 issued a swift denial, but there can be little doubt that someone in or close to Downing Street had been testing the waters.

There’s a big opportunity for Labour here. The tide has finally turned. There’s a sea change in the national mood. The “will of the people” is indisputably mutating. The “doomsters and gloomsters” have been proved right, and in a country beset by dire economic problems the pendulum is swinging back from the populist right to the sober centre. 

In her response to Hunt’s Autumn Statement Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, made just one passing reference to the B-word when she talked of “fixing the holes in the government’s Brexit deal”, but Labour should be moving on to the offensive instead of regarding Brexit as a taboo subject.

It was a Conservative prime minister who called the 2016 referendum. It was a Conservative prime minister who led us so triumphantly out of Europe. It was right-wing Conservative zealots who demanded – and got – the hardest possible Brexit. The Tories cannot possibly distance themselves from Brexit now that their great ideological experiment is turning sour. They cannot avoid responsibility for inflicting on Britain what an ever greater chunk of the population now sees as the greatest act of economic self-harm in living memory. Labour should be seizing every opportunity to ensure the electorate never forgets that. 

[See also: “Brexit has been disappointing”: Labour Leave chair John Mills on his regrets]

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