Three years have now passed since the UK left the European Union. But to date a conspiracy of silence has prevailed among Britain’s political parties about the consequences of that decision.
The Conservatives now seldom mention Brexit because they do not want to be held responsible for its failures. Labour seldom mentions Brexit because it does not want to be charged with devising an alternative. Even the Liberal Democrats are shy of advertising that their official policy is for the UK to rejoin the EU.
But cracks are appearing in this facade of neutrality. On 9-10 February a cross-party group of politicians met at Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire to discuss how the UK can “make Brexit work better”. These included the Levelling-Up Secretary, Michael Gove, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, the former Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont and the former Europe minister David Lidington. The subtext was clear: it isn’t working at present.
This unusually pluralistic gathering was a reflection of political and economic reality. The political reality is that the public are increasingly disillusioned with Brexit. Around 60 per cent of voters tell pollsters that they believe the UK was wrong to leave the EU. Even more strikingly, 45 per cent now support reversing Brexit. As older voters leave the electorate and as younger voters join it, the Conservatives’ Europe problem will only grow.
The economic reality is that the UK’s malaise has been deepened by Brexit. Since the 2016 referendum, as the Bank of England’s Jonathan Haskel recently noted, business investment has stagnated, resulting in a penalty of around £1,000 per household. British living standards have fallen far behind those of its competitors and the UK is now the only G7 country whose economy has not returned to its pre-pandemic size.
[See also: This Brexit truce was inevitable]
Not all or even most of the UK’s woes – as some Remainers like to suggest – are because of Brexit. Its fundamental problems – dismal productivity, regional inequality, dilapidated infrastructure – long predate the referendum. Indeed, they helped fuel the disaffection reflected in the Leave vote. When Remainers imply that EU membership would serve as a panacea for the British disease, they merely demonstrate how little they have learned.
But only the most ideological Leaver – of which there are a diminishing number – would contend that Brexit has done no economic harm. There is no mystery as to the cause: the UK willingly depressed trade with the EU and has failed to compensate through deals with other countries. It was always a delusion to believe that an economy the size of Britain’s would be capable of securing generous terms with geographically distant powers.
So what is to be done? Despite its 20-point poll lead over the Conservatives, there is little prospect of Labour pledging to rejoin the single market or the customs union. Precisely because its electoral hopes depend on winning back the Red Wall, where a clear majority of voters backed Leave, the party will not countenance anything that could be presented as a rejection of Brexit.
Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves’s plan, as Andrew Marr recently revealed in the New Statesman, “is to negotiate sector by sector and accept the need for a dynamic alignment with EU standards”. Yet should Labour enter government with a large majority, the pressure for a more radical alternative will inexorably grow. When David Cameron became prime minister in May 2010, few anticipated that he would hold a referendum on EU membership – but by January 2013 he had already been forced to promise one.
The UK will soon be forced to confront anew the question that tormented it from 2016 to 2020: what does Brexit mean? As Wolfgang Münchau writes on page 19, there are no cost-free answers. The EU will not permit the UK to rejoin on its previous membership terms: opt-outs from the euro and the borderless Schengen Zone and a £4.9bn budget rebate.
For now, the best option is for Remainers and Leavers alike to try to make Brexit work. The strongest argument for the project was always that it could enable the economic reset that the UK needs. No longer would politicians be able to blame Britain’s domestic woes on “Brussels” – they alone would be responsible. Now, as the UK’s decline accelerates, they should be forced to answer the question: what did you take back control for?
Michael Gove has shown courage in breaking the Brexit taboo
Can Britain ever rejoin the EU?
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere