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23 June 2022

Six years after the EU referendum, the Tories are losing control

By-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton today could prove the disintegration of Johnson’s Brexit project.

By Freddie Hayward

Six years ago today 52 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the European Union and 48 per cent voted to remain. David Cameron would soon whistle away from the scene. Theresa May would preside over three years of bitter negotiations and parliamentary wranglings before Tory MPs turned to Boris Johnson to finish the job. The UK would eventually leave the EU three-and-a-half years later on 31 January 2020.

Brexit then slipped from the national conversation as the pandemic took hold. It was said the economic effect of Brexit was indiscernible from the convulsions of the pandemic. That’s changing now. A report published yesterday from the Resolution Foundation found that the long-term effect of Brexit will be “to reduce household incomes as a result of a weaker pound, and lower investment and trade”. In front of the Treasury Committee in March, an unnerved Rishi Sunak conceded that the collapse in UK trade “might well” have something to do with Brexit. The OBR wrote last year that exports and imports will be “around 15 per cent lower in the long run” than if the UK had remained in the EU. Brexit, they predicted, would reduce the UK’s potential GDP by around 4 per cent.

In a piece for this week’s magazine, Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former permanent representative to the EU, reminds us that the Brexit chosen by the government “would once have been viewed as ‘hard’ beyond the wildest dreams of many Eurosceptics”. (It’s amusing to think David Cameron and George Osborne were once classed as Eurosceptics.) The final agreement was not designed to foster trade with the EU. Sovereignty superseded prosperity.

And for many, Brexit was never about wealth. Immigration dominated. Dismissing the Resolution Foundation’s findings yesterday as a “regurgitation of Project Fear”, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities, told the Commons: “I’ve always thought it’s all about democracy”. He was there to celebrate the day six years ago when the UK voted to leave the EU – or, as he put it, that “day of legend and song”. He even came bearing gifts: a brand new dashboard on the government website that tracks the number of EU laws repealed.

But voters didn’t turn to the Conservatives in 2019 for gimmicks such as interactive dashboards. Many voted to break the interminable gridlock in parliament and hand people such as Rees-Mogg and Johnson a mandate to “Get Brexit Done”. Two of those places are holding by-elections today: Wakefield, where 66 per cent voted for Brexit, and Tiverton and Honiton, where the figure was 58 per cent.

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Labour is expected to win in Wakefield. The question is the size of the swing. The Lib Dems would have to overcome a monumental majority of 24,000 in Tiverton and Honiton to win the seat. For comparison, the Conservative majority in last year’s Chesham and Amersham by-election, which the Lib Dems won, was around 16,000. The results are expected in the early hours of tomorrow morning. You can read reports from each constituency here and here

Should this pincer movement against the Conservatives work, it will bring succour to those Tory MPs hoping to oust Johnson before the next general election. As for Labour, a strong performance is vital in proving the party can retake the seats it lost in 2019. It would also quieten those Labour MPs disgruntled with Keir Starmer’s leadership – at least until the party conference in the autumn.

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