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24 April 2023

Why a Brexit inquiry would be ideal but impossible

A Tory government will never admit it has impoverished our country.

By Jonn Elledge

Seven years ago last week, George Osborne sparked a storm by warning that departing the EU would leave Britain “permanently poorer”. By 2030, he warned, citing a Treasury study, the economy would be 6 per cent smaller than if we stayed in.

This went down with Leavers about as well as one might expect: no less a giant than John Redwood described it as “completely worthless”. And if it was simply a scare tactic then obviously it didn’t work. We’re now halfway to 2030, though, and real wages are falling while prices are very clearly not. Last week the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a feature headed, “Britain in Crisis: The UK Faces a Steep Climb Out of a Deep Hole”.

Little wonder, then, that over 141,000 people signed an online petition demanding an inquiry into the effects of Brexit, a large enough number to force MPs to spend this afternoon debating the matter. The move would have wide public support: last week a poll by Omnisis found that 59 per cent backed such an inquiry, while just 25 per cent opposed it. This is, you will notice, a significantly bigger margin than in the vote for Brexit itself.

None of this is surprising. Whatever our divisions regarding questions of sovereignty and the best political relationship to have with our neighbours, most of us can agree on some things – that trade and growth are good, say, while unnecessary bureaucracy and pointless queues at Dover are not. That when things aren’t working it makes sense to fix them, and we can’t do that unless we know what the problems are.

[See also: Why Keir Starmer is still struggling to cut through]

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However overwhelming the case for an inquiry may be, though, the Tories are vanishingly unlikely to give it to us: the Leave vote was spearheaded by much of the Conservative Party and Rishi Sunak is a Brexiteer. One of the reasons why governments run out of road is that it becomes politically impossible to say they have got something wrong, and so they cannot correct their mistake. And while this lot have performed more about-faces than would have seemed possible in 2010 – just look at the multiple U-turns on the importance or utility of austerity – there are a couple of things they can’t say without blowing up their electoral coalition. One is “older people need to learn to share”; the other is “this whole Brexit thing might possibly have been a terrible, terrible mistake”.

A new government, though, would face no such constraint. It seems highly unlikely that Keir Starmer, whose single-minded mission in life seems to be not to scare the horses, is going to announce anything that might be construed as Remain-coded this side of an election. Once he’s in, though, he’s in: Bank of England independence wasn’t in the 1997 Labour manifesto, either.

Inquiries have often served as a useful way to roll the pitch for favoured policies, and as a Remoaner of some years standing, I would personally love it if this was the first step towards Britain rejoining the EU. That, though, seems unlikely, not least because the other 27 nations would have to want us back. So an inquiry wouldn’t be about undoing the referendum: it would simply be about making sure that we stop doing the political equivalent of punching ourselves in the face.

Another iffy comment George Osborne liked to utter when he still had a political career was that Labour had failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining. Well: now someone’s nicked the roof altogether, and it’s started pissing it down. We could really do with someone taking a look at that.

[See also: Labour’s Sunak adverts show Keir Starmer has finally decided to gamble]

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