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Carrying on regardless

Carrying on regardless

The absence of any tangible Brexit benefits is likely throw up old arguments around Britain’s departure from the EU, causing a headache for both the Tories and Labour


Transcript

So far, Brexit is not working. 

“Don’t be silly,” the Leavers say. “It’s way too early to tell.”

“We told you so,” say the Remainers. “In fact, it’s worse than we feared.”

Either way. 

I’m James Harding, the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to point out that Brexit is back, once again splitting the Right, stumping the Left, paralysing government and poisoning British politics.

Leavers, for the first time, are on the defensive. Boris Johnson’s appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Minister for Brexit Opportunities was telling: it tells of the PM’s relative weakness, being a reward for loyalty rather than performance; but it also tells of a Leave campaign that now has to prove its case, rather than just make one; and, given Rees-Mogg’s a hard Brexiteer, it’s divisive within the Conservative party, too. 

For what it’s worth, I also thought it was a mistake. “Brexit opportunities” is not a government department, nor a sector of the economy. It’s a policy, possibly even a hope. This business of reorganising the government around political slogans and projects – Levelling Up, DexEU, now Brexit Opportunities – makes more of a mess inside government than people realise. And it’s also silly. Before we know it, we’re going to have shuffled a few thousand more civil servants around to join the Department for England Winning the World Cup. 

Of course, Brexit may succeed in time. But, as Johnson and his “get Brexit done” government knows, a failing Brexit is with us now. 

The Brexiteers promised all the benefits of the single market and the customs union outside the UK. But in 2021 UK exports to the EU fell by £20 billion – down 12 per cent – compared to 2018. (It’s 2018 because that’s the year the Office for National Statistics chooses as the best comparison. It’s the last stable year of trade – pre-pandemic and pre-Brexit stockpiling.) The fact is, these sales weren’t offset, as Brexiteers might have hoped, by exports to new markets. In fact, sales to the rest of the world were also down, but they were down tellingly by half as much as those sales to the EU.

The hope of many Leavers was that taking back control would mean getting a grip on immigration. But the UK has, on the one hand, had to deal with chronic labour market shortages in the hospitality, food and care sectors, owing to hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers having left the UK. On the other hand, the numbers of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants crossing the Channel has soared; there were over 28,000 in 2021, more than ten times the number venturing across five years ago. Both businesses and the Border Force will tell you that immigration is expensively and dangerously out of control. 

The government’s own forecasters don’t expect a Brexit lift for the UK economy: in fact, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s outlook for the trend rate of UK growth is 1.3-1.7 per cent, significantly down from previous GDP growth of 2-2.5 per cent a year. The UK’s go-it-alone handling of the pandemic hardly makes the case for Britain’s “independence day”: UK covid deaths per capita of population were below Belgium and Italy, but well above France, Spain, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. And the UK is fragile. The Irish border question remains. The polls show support in Scotland for independence is higher than it was before the EU referendum. 

Brexiteers can point to genuine changes and new-found flexibility: blue passports; freeports; the first trade deals (even if they are photocopies of the old trade deals); and things like the invitation to merchant ships to join the UK’s tonnage tax schemes if they fly the red ensign, the Union Jack of the merchant navy. This last one was touted by Rishi Sunak in his last Budget.

But, for the most part, these benefits are not changing the lives of British people. They’re policy baubles: eye-catching, decorative and not much use. 

And, the fact is, the Brexiteers know it. It’s not that they think the promise of leaving the EU was a false one, but that it will take time. The potential for Brexit may lie in the future, but the politics of Brexit is back with us now. 

And if it is once again divisive for the Tories, it’s more difficult than you’d think for Boris Johnson’s opposition. 

Over the past couple of years, Keir Starmer has taken the Remainer truce over Brexit and turned the word into something of a taboo: after Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 election, Starmer’s mantra has been that the matter is settled. He makes a point of avoiding the issue. But what if Brexit keeps on not working? Is the silence on Brexit conviction or then just convenience? What happens when members of his party start airing arguments for rejoining the EU or, at least, suggesting it’s time to come up with a different deal? 

Starmer’s options are not easy, but they lead logically to one place. The argument to rejoin the EU is a non-starter, as it reneges on the referendum; but the refusal to discuss it fails to show leadership. The best – and I suspect most likely course – is for Labour to set out the terms of a new and open association with the EU. It would have to respect the 2016 vote. It would need to rebuild trade and cooperation with the EU. And it would keep the UK out of membership, but back in a relationship with the European Union.

Brexit is going to become a word that, once again, we can’t avoid. And if you lived through British politics in the 2010s, none of this feels good. 

Old friendships were broken by differences over Brexit. Politics was never polite or entirely honourable, but the referendum made it markedly worse: the Conservatives in particular made a habit of blaming their frustrations on the British “establishment” – the civil service, the BBC, big business. And abroad, Britain’s friends told us that they watch on in bemusement: bemused by Brexit, unable to fathom how it will restore the country’s power, remedy its problems or redeem its politics. 

And the fact is that it hasn’t. When I speak to people in politics, business and government, I find that these days they talk all too often with a certain sad bewilderment at the state of Britain; a suspicion of unstoppable relative decline; a disbelief at the corroding integrity of government. And, if you’ve seen it on their faces, you’ll know what I mean: an eye-rolling resignation about what’s happened to politics. Not so much a Churchillian “Keep calm and carry on”; but a cheery British “carry on regardless”.