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20 June 2024

The aftershocks of Brexit aren’t over

After a conspiracy of silence, the European question will return to haunt the main parties.

By David Gauke

Brexit is the unspoken issue of this general election campaign. The Conservatives won the last election on “getting Brexit done” but now avoid drawing attention to what few consider to be much of an accomplishment. Nigel Farage seems to have reached a similar conclusion.  Labour wants the backing of those who supported Leave – “hero voters” they call them – as do the Liberal Democrats. To be fair, the latter have a policy to rejoin the single market but would rather not talk about it.

In each case, there is a plausible political case for avoiding the topic but it is very odd. Brexit has redefined our politics and hugely affected the economy.  Nor will it be possible for political parties to ignore the issue of our relationship with the European Union in future.  I have written before about the Brexit truce that would exist during this general election campaign but I still believe that it will not hold for the next one.

The demise of the Conservative Party, if that is what we are witnessing (a Savanta/Telegraph poll puts the party on just 53 seats), can be attributed largely to Brexit. Perhaps the Tories’ traditional coalition of support could not have held together in any event (other centre-right parties have faced their challenges), but the aftermath of the 2016 referendum has made it immensely hard – if not impossible – to appeal both to middle-class centrists wanting competent government (who generally voted Remain) and right-wing populists angry with the modern world (who almost universally voted Leave).  

Boris Johnson just about held the coalition together in 2019 but he was by having Jeremy Corbyn as an opponent. Rishi Sunak, in contrast, is failing to appeal to either the middle-class centrists or the populists. Post-election, the Conservatives are likely to choose the populist route. At that point, a Tory opposition will fully accept the Leave state of mind.  Any attempts to mitigate the difficulties of Brexit will be condemned as a betrayal; the complaints that it has not been properly implemented will become louder; the demands that we also leave the European Convention on Human Rights will become the centre-piece of a new agenda for the right.

It is not obvious that this is the best route to electoral success given how extraordinarily unpopular Brexit is with younger voters. There is a wider point, however, that the change in temperament in the Conservative Party that has been caused by Brexit has made it a party more interested in tapping into discontent than solving practical problems. Parties that sustain electoral success do both, but as the Tories become ever more Faragiste they will give up entirely on the problem-solving part. It is not impossible for parties of protest to win elections (that is essentially what Johnson did in 2019) but, if they do, they make lousy governments that do not last.

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This is why Brexit has been so destructive for the Tories. It is not so much the damage done to the economy – this does not help, although the ill-effects of Brexit have been obscured by the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine – but the change in mindset. Theresa May attempted to reconcile Leave campaign rhetoric with reality and was condemned for betraying Brexit. The lessons her successors learned (at least, the next two) was to focus on the rhetoric and ignore the reality. Eventually, reality catches up.

For a Labour government, Brexit creates its own challenges. Keir Starmer talks a great deal about growth but any government serious about upping the growth rate would take a much more radical approach to our relationship with the EU. Rachel Reeves is now talking about regulatory alignment on matters such as the chemical industry but Treasury officials will soon be setting out to her the economic case for going further and the price (in terms of what the EU will demand in return) for doing so. Labour may lack a mandate for anything very substantial but will have a parliament sympathetic to a closer relationship and a party membership enthusiastic for it. With a party leader already in his 60s, ambitious leadership candidates will soon let it be known that the government could be more radical.

All that is for another day. For the moment, the issue of our relationship with the EU is one the parties seek to manage. The objective is to avoid upsetting any part of their potential coalition of voters or, in the case of the Tories and Reform, avoid reminding voters of the broken promises of Brexit.  

For those frustrated at the apparent conspiracy of silence by the mainstream parties and want to send a message, the plucky but low-profile Rejoin EU Party is standing in 26 constituencies. Their ambition is to be a reverse Ukip, exerting pressure on the major parties by taking their votes. They are, at present, a small cloud, like a man’s hand rising from the sea but one day something may come of it.

Brexit has shaped our politics for the past decade and it will continue to shape it. The discomfort this causes all our political parties suggests a fragility and instability that persists within our political system. The shock of Brexit gave the Tories a healthy majority but has contributed to their extraordinary decline. Some in Labour will conclude that ignoring the issue has been an electoral triumph but the fault lines remain. Brexit was a political earthquake but we are not done with the aftershocks.

[See also: How to fix a nation]

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