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15 March 2021updated 17 Mar 2021 11:18am

It’s now clear Brexit is an act of self-harm – so why are Labour and the Tories silent?

The calamitous consequences of leaving the EU are becoming plainer with every passing week.

By Martin Fletcher

Call me a Remoaner, a sore loser or a sad obsessive stuck in the past, but it seems to me that the calamitous consequences of Brexit are becoming plainer with every passing week.

Over the past seven days, for example, we have learnt that British exports to the EU slumped by 41 per cent in the first month after the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December, and that exports to Germany, our second largest trading partner, fell 56 per cent. We learned that 20 per cent of British exporters – beset by costly new red tape – have ceased trading with the EU and that the number of Japanese firms in Britain has fallen by 12 per cent since the 2016 referendum. 

At the same time the EU announced that it would launch legal action against the UK after Boris Johnson violated his own “fantastic” divorce agreement. That agreement’s so-called Northern Ireland Protocol has created such onerous barriers to exports from Britain to Northern Ireland, and so angered the province’s Unionists, that our shameless government unilaterally extended the grace periods designed to soften its impact.

The government meanwhile postponed border checks on imports from the EU for a second time because the necessary infrastructure is still not ready. So much for regaining control of our borders.

Plunging exports at a time when the economy is already reeling from a year of Covid-19 lockdowns? Foreign investors pulling out? A British government breaching an international treaty it freely negotiated and solemnly signed? The UK’s relations with the EU – and neighbouring Ireland – hitting rock bottom? Northern Ireland destabilised and the Good Friday Agreement undermined? 

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[See also: Boris Johnson’s uncooked Brexit sits rotting in the ports

By any measure these are big, big stories, but you would hardly know because Brexit has become a taboo subject – the Great Unmentionable – with the government, Labour and the right-wing press colluding in a conspiracy of silence.

The government does not want to draw attention to the false promises of a golden future with which it duped the country into voting for Brexit, or to the singular lack of benefits that have resulted from our regained sovereignty. It is now patently obvious to all but the ideologically blinded that no £350m-a-week Brexit dividend exists, that our manufacturing and service industries have been hampered, not set free, that Brexit is tearing the Union apart and gravely undermining our global stature. The government is only now – almost five years after the referendum – seeking to develop a post-Brexit strategy to work out what Britain can or cannot do with its new autonomy.

Hence a prime minister who won the last election by pledging repeatedly, relentlessly and ad nauseam to “Get Brexit done” scarcely mentions the B-word any more (though Brussels remains his scapegoat-of-choice for anything that goes wrong). 

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, omitted to mention Brexit once in his recent Budget speech, despite the fact it will have a greater long-term impact on the British economy than the Covid pandemic. Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for mayor of London this May, makes not a single reference to Brexit in his manifesto despite its dire consequences for both the city and the City. 

For obvious reasons the government has failed to produce an economic impact assessment of Johnson’s pre-Christmas trade deal. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, has blocked the creation of a select committee to investigate Brexit’s ramifications for the nation. Indeed Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Mark Francois and all those other Brexit zealots have gone strangely quiet now that they have achieved their lifetime’s ambition.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s reckless Brexit deal threatens to destroy peace in Northern Ireland

To its eternal shame, the official opposition, desperate to win back Brexit-supporting “Red Wall” seats, has chosen not to hold the government to account for its almost criminal gamble with Britain’s future. 

Keir Starmer failed to mention Brexit once in a major speech on rebuilding Britain after Covid last month. I can’t remember when, if ever, the Labour leader last used Prime Minister’s Questions to challenge Johnson on Brexit’s baleful consequences. According to the Observer, Labour MPs have been told to ignore Brexit in their parliamentary questions and media appearances. Small wonder that Labour and Starmer have lost their poll lead over the Conservatives and Johnson.

I understand that we are in the midst of a terrible pandemic. I understand that the UK was deeply traumatised by the bitter battles over Brexit and that people are desperate to move on. But Brexit is not some trifling matter. It will change this nation for generations to come.

Nor am I talking about refighting yesterday’s battles. I’m talking about Labour’s duty to highlight the serious damage Brexit is wreaking right now on British businesses, services, universities, fishermen, farmers, artists, musicians, tourists and expats, let alone the Union; its duty to resist Britain becoming known as a dishonourable country that breaks the law and can’t be trusted; its duty to call out David Frost, the man whom Johnson has put in charge of future relations with the giant political and trading bloc across the Channel but who seems hell-bent on wrecking them. Nobody voted for all that back in 2016, and Brexit is far from “done”.

Then there is the right-wing British press – the tabloids and the Telegraph – without whose xenophobic, jingoistic and thoroughly dishonest propaganda the country would never have voted for Brexit. Far from admitting it was wrong, the press continues to spew forth its bile and venom. It continues to vilify the EU while giving Johnson’s government a free pass. It hails the vaccination programme as a triumphant vindication of Brexit, which it is not, while ignoring Brexit’s costs or relegating them to the business pages.

As a journalist myself I never thought I’d say this about the press, but Brexit, the phone-hacking scandal, the hounding of Harry and Meghan out of Britain – which other part of our society is allowed to wreak such damage on our country with such total impunity?

One day, our children or grandchildren will look back on these years and wonder at the delusion, resignation and silence, and why the country acquiesced in such an egregious act of self-harm as Brexit.

[See also: Why is Boris Johnson getting away with failure?]