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23 November 2022

Keeping quiet on Brexit is a shrewd move for Labour now, but a strategic disaster in the long term

What is the opposition’s thinking about Britain’s place in the world?

By Andrew Marr

It has started. No man is an island; and in the modern world economy, no island is an island, either. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has “great confidence that over the years ahead, we will find outside the single market we are able to remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU”. Anonymous senior government sources have told the Sunday Times that Britain is mulling over Swiss-style relations with the EU in the hope that they lead to frictionless trade.

It’s not really true. But as soon as the Brexit revolutionary strategy of slashing taxes and regulations failed, it was obvious that British politicians would begin to “mull” alternative strategies.

It was equally obvious that, with growing evidence from economists, businesses and the Office for Budget Responsibility about the effect on the economy of being outside the biggest nearby market, this rethinking would include the possibility of a closer relationship with the EU.

What wasn’t obvious was that Liz Truss, of all people, would give the issue such sweaty, eye-popping urgency. Her smash-up was the wrong answer to the right question; how to recover from a dozen years of torpid growth. Because of her failure, everyone is talking about the need for an alternative “growth strategy”. Tony Danker, director-general of the CBI, wants a more liberalised immigration policy. In this atmosphere it was impossible that British-EU relations wouldn’t become hot again.

So the little row over the Sunday Times report was inevitable. Lord Frost, Brexit’s Cardinal Wolsey, has had to be revived with smelling salts. Jacob Rees-Mogg was threatening to take off his waistcoat. The European Research Group was out punching tourists again.

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[See also: Jeremy Hunt’s political balancing act won’t satisfy an angry public]

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And it was all nothing. Within hours of the Sunday Times’ article of 20 November, its sister newspaper was reporting breathlessly that Rishi Sunak, far from mulling a Swiss-style relationship, was in fact ruling one out. Since Switzerland pays into the EU budget, sticks closely to EU regulations and allows freedom of movement in both directions, “Switzerland”, like “Singapore”, would be a long way from the Brexit deal promised by the Johnson-era Tories. It’s a ludicrously complicated relationship that the EU dislikes and it won’t be replicated.

British governments don’t exist without parliamentary majorities. Moving to a more rational relationship with the EU would mean Sunak losing his in the time it takes to snap your fingers. Even if he could hold his MPs together on this (he can’t), there is also the ever-present threat to the Tories of a right-wing breakaway. Nigel Farage, outrageously excluded from the national conversation by being given his own television show, is already doing his high-kicking seasonal “I might be coming back into politics” jig.

In the six years since the Brexit referendum, “Europe” has been mostly more dangerous for Labour than for the Tories. Boris Johnson’s peeling-away of English northern voters has so spooked the party that Keir Starmer sounds more absolutist against reopening the debate than Rees-Mogg himself. Talking to the Sunday Express, for instance, Starmer said: “Let me be really clear about Brexit. There is no case for going back into the EU and no case for going into the single market or customs union. Freedom of movement is over. There will be no return to that, either. What we want to do is make Brexit work.”

For Starmer and the Tories alike, the key issue is again immigration. Because of recent press around Channel crossings, it is once more among the top issues of concern for many voters – 33 per cent of them, according to YouGov. But this does not necessarily change their views on Brexit and the economy.

The latest survey on the topic from YouGov found 56 per cent of people polled think leaving the EU was the wrong decision, and only 32 per cent still think it right – the largest gap so far, and a huge swing in opinion since summer 2021. Of those who voted for Brexit, one in five now thinks it was the wrong decision.

You might argue that this is the perfect time for a bold opposition to execute a judo move and try to upend Brexit Britain – not by going back but by promoting some kind of association agreement, for instance. There are senior people across the Labour Party who think this, and who are deeply frustrated with Starmer for not agreeing.

It is certainly an issue of leadership. When it comes to short-term tactics, Starmer is clearly right. The “Swiss” row is a ludicrous confection – in which Tory right-wingers see George Osborne’s lily-white fingers all too obviously present. But it reminds us how deeply divided and quietly paranoid the party remains on the subject. Indeed, it may yet be the issue on which this government falls. So, why interrupt your enemy? Rubbing his hands, smiling and saying nothing interesting is shrewd tactics from Starmer.

But alongside tactics, there is always strategy, and strategy matters more. What does Labour actually want? Does it really want the UK to be outside the European market forever? If it doesn’t see Britain as a member of the social democratic European family, where does it see Britain? If the plan is to win power, maintain fiscal discipline, retain all current barriers to trade and keep out migrants, where, really, is the growth agenda?

I am not talking about returning to the EU – that is another matter entirely. It doesn’t want us and would insist on too high a price. But some kind of trade treaty formalising the underlying political reality, which is that we are very close neighbours without being quite “of” Europe, is the obvious way forward. And if the British centre left wants a different relationship, now is the time to start moving. You rarely win arguments by declining to have them.

[See also: Return of Brexit talks gives Labour an opening]

So, I say again, where is the big picture? Brexiteers are probably right that it is early to make a definitive judgement. But the economic indicators are grim. Today, more importantly, the Brexiteers have no alternative economic prospectus that makes sense in a country that wants to think of itself as fair, environmentally conscious and engaged in the rest of the world.

Sunak is trying to find out whether sticking with a hard Brexit while smiling broadly at the French will change things. I’m all for the smiling; much better that than silly strops. But the hard realities don’t change, and better personal relations won’t be transformational. The true believers, meanwhile, would have us picking in turnip fields with wooden staves and then limping back to wattle huts before they conceded any economic harm from Brexit.

What is the Labour strategic thinking about Britain’s place in the world?

Make no mistake, this is an emotional subject. I am a European Scot who lives in London, and I feel far more affinity for the French, Dutch, Germans and Italians as they struggle to balance living well with shaping their future in an unstable climate than I do with furiously divided, culture-warring Americans. That may seem self-indulgent; but as a political issue, this one is instinctive and it’s about identity.

However tactically astute it might be for Labour under Starmer to maintain that Brexit is not just irreversible, but is to be celebrated and applauded, the strategic silence worries me. If we are at a time when the country’s direction is genuinely at stake, then progressives need to be fuelled by belief. To stand back and watch the Conservatives destroy themselves might seem a reasonable, even mildly enjoyable, pastime. But things are too serious now. Third time of asking: where is the bigger picture?

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette