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Brexit is back

Brexit is back

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Reports that “senior government figures” are considering a Swiss-style trade deal with the European Union caused an instant backlash. Why are we talking about Brexit again?

When the UK left the European Union it gave up membership of the single market. 

The single market is designed to make trade between countries as easy as trade within countries by allowing the free movement of people, capital, goods and services.

Otherwise known as the four freedoms.

And that’s why many Brexiteers wanted Britain to leave the EU, so it could go its own way, not be bound by EU rules and – importantly – end free movement of people. 

Because for a lot of people who backed Brexit it was about controlling immigration.

So you can imagine the reaction when the Sunday Times reported that “senior government figures” were considering a Swiss-style trade deal with the European Union, that would see the UK align with EU rules and regulations in return for a boost to the economy.

“It’s gone down very badly, it has to be said, amongst big name Brexiteers, Lord Frost (a Breixt negotiator himself) says that if this is true, they need to seriously rethink it.”

GB News

It instantly transported people back to the dark days of 2018, when Theresa May had tried – and failed – to secure support for a similar deal in her so-called Chequers plan. 

Switzerland has access to the European single market, but in return it has to accept freedom of movement and pay into the EU budget. It also gives the European Courts of Justice significant say over the relationship.

All of these are red lines for Brexiteers. After all, any move towards a Single Market arrangement gives the EU more say in UK affairs, which is why the UK left the EU without a deal like Switzerland’s.

So why is it being discussed again? 

***

During his Autumn Statement the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt studiously ignored the B-word. As he raised taxes and warned of spending cuts to come, he instead blamed Covid and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Brexit was the elephant in the room.

But outside the Commons’ chamber, the B-word was making a come-back.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which marks the government’s homework, warned that Brexit “will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if the U.K. had remained in the EU.”  

It couldn’t be ignored much longer, which is why Jeremy Hunt said this the morning after his Autumn Statement.

“Having unfettered trade with our neighbours and countries all over the world is very beneficial to growth. This will take place outside the Single Market. We are able to remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU”.

Jeremy Hunt

That comment and the fact that Jeremy Hunt backed Remain in 2016 is why some in the Conservative Party think the Sunday Times story came from him.

***

Rishi Sunak campaigned for Vote Leave during the referendum. He’s a Brexiteer. But some Conservative backbenchers doubt the prime minister’s commitment to the cause and this story won’t help, which is why he’s tried to distance himself from it

“On trade, let me be unequivocal about this. Under my leadership the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”

Rishi Sunak

But according to an opinion poll by YouGov, support for Brexit is at a record low, with only 32% of the British public saying it was right to leave and 56% saying it was wrong to leave.

In short: Brexit is being criticised by an independent forecasting body, senior politicians and the general public. 

And yet, neither the government nor the opposition are changing tack for one very good reason: fear. 

Rishi Sunak is clinging onto power largely because he’s the third person in the post this year. A Tory rebellion on planning reforms gave him a taste of what’s to come. 

One MP told Tortoise: “It’s about showing Rishi who’s in charge. And showing him how weak he is.” 

He doesn’t want to pick a fight with hardline Brexiteers and risk Boris Johnson returning to challenge him.

As one Tory source put it: 

“Hunt will have to go otherwise Rishi will have this Brexit stuff hanging over him – and like the Blair /Brown era mix of cabinet, I suspect if he doesn’t have a couple of prominent Brexiteers at the top table they’ll have big Boris-shaped problems by next summer.”

Anonymous Conservative MP

Luckily for the Tories, Labour are also shy of the B-word, which is why shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves mentioned it just once in her response to Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement. 

For Labour, Brexit is less the elephant in the room and more the elephant trap they fear falling into.   

They don’t want to alienate the voters they need to win the next election by looking too pro-immigration, which is what comes with being part of the single market or having access to it.

And so, regardless of the economic argument or a shift in the public mood, the Brexit elephant continues to stomp around Westminster.


This episode was written by Tortoise’s political editor Cat Neilan and mixed by Rebecca Moore.