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It’s time to talk Brexit

Our political leaders will barely utter the B-word – but they can’t avoid it forever

Pro-EU demonstrators protest outside Parliament against Brexit on the fourth anniversary of Britain's official departure. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Some things are just too painful or embarrassing to talk about. It seems that, for the two main political parties in the UK, Brexit falls into that category. During an election campaign in which economic issues take precedence over anything that might come close to idealism, neither Conservatives nor Labour want to broach the little matter of Brexit.

The most momentous decision the UK has taken in a generation has become too dreadful even to be mentioned. Both sides have consigned it to the cupboard reserved for skeletons. But Brexit is not yet at the skeleton stage. Inconveniently for the politicians, it is still very much a live issue.

The UK is poorer in so many ways as a result of Brexit: people are having to pay more for their food because of Brexit; travel arrangements are more complicated because of Brexit; hospitals, care homes and restaurants are short of staff because of Brexit. There has been no upside to the ill-conceived decision that was taken in 2016.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak, then only a recently elected Member of Parliament but harbouring big ambitions, was a committed advocate of that decision. That may explain his current reluctance to address the issue. His desire not to hang around on European soil but to rush back to Blighty during the D Day commemorations was an eloquent demonstration of his lack of empathy with Europe as well as his appalling lack of judgement.

Sir Keir Starmer’s determination to keep Brexit off the agenda is purely political. His entire philosophy for this election has been to alienate as few voters as possible. His enrollment as prime minister is assured, but he naturally wants to take office with the backing of the largest possible majority. Some voters, particularly in the Red Wall seats he aims to win back for Labour, continue to be hostile to the idea of the UK being part of the EU.

If pushed, Starmer will venture as far as suggesting that he would like a smoother relationship between the UK and the EU but he will go no further. His nervousness about embracing anything that some Eurosceptics might deem to be being too friendly with our neighbours went so far as to see him immediately rebuff the EU’s offer of a very limited youth mobility scheme. 

The Conservatives had vetoed it, even though they had been trying to negotiate similar deals with individual countries, yet Starmer’s decision to promptly echo that veto seemed more knee-jerk than necessary. Young voters would have been overwhelmingly in favour of such a scheme and even the most xenophobic of Red Wall residents would surely not have seen support for the idea as evidence that Starmer would have them back in the EU as quickly as possible.

But, frustrating as readers of this paper must find it, Starmer’s stance in the run up to the election does appear borne out by analysis. Professor John Curtice, who dissects polling data with the microscopic intensity of a molecular biologist, last month examined how Labour’s attitude to the EU was affecting its support. He found that among those who continue to espouse Brexit, support for Labour was “much higher” with people who believed that the party shared their view and “somewhat higher” even when they felt the party had no clear view. However, those in favour of re-joining seemed inclined to support Labour “in substantial numbers”, irrespective of where they thought it stood on the EU issue.

For the purposes of the election, then, not getting close to talking about rejoining the EU is probably the right game plan for Starmer. But between the two extremes of leaving and rejoining the EU, there are many options which could be discussed without causing too much alarm to Brexit supporters and which would provide a degree of comfort to those who still feel bereft about the great act of self harm that the UK has committed.

Yet such is the continuing toxicity of the issue that even the Liberal Democrats, committed Europhiles throughout the whole miserable Brexit process, seem nervous about appearing too enthusiastic. Their manifesto pledges to “immediately fix our broken relationship with Europe” and remove as many trade barriers as possible but it is only in the final section of the document, the 22nd, that it dares to refer to its route map that would eventually take the UK back into the Single Market and then to (deep breath here) “our longer term objective – Rejoin”.

Anyhow, realistically, the decision to rejoin the EU is not one that can be taken unilaterally by the UK. Each member state would have to approve an application and a unanimous welcome cannot be taken for granted. The UK’s withdrawal led to enhanced influence for some smaller members who might be reluctant to see that diminished and most will recall that the country was not the easiest bedfellow. Even if rejoining were to be a possibility, the terms on offer would not be as favourable as those which had been enjoyed by the UK. Membership of the euro would certainly not be voluntary and nor would signing up to the Schengen agreement on borders.

Rejoining the EU may be an issue for future generations but it is unlikely to trouble Keir Starmer’s premiership even if he should secure a second term. Neither is it anywhere near the top of the list of concerns for voters. They are worried about the cost of living, the state of the National Health Service, housing and the future of public services in general. What those all add up to is what President Bill Clinton’s political advisor, James Carville, memorably identified in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Acknowledging that, both Labour and Conservative parties are stressing the need to deliver growth in the economy – and then dodging the relatively quick and easy fix that is so near at hand: putting right the worst of Brexit. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent authority on the economy, has been very clear that the post-Brexit trading relationship will reduce UK long-run productivity by 4 per cent. It reiterated that figure in May this year.

Cambridge Econometrics calculate that the average Briton was nearly £2,000 worse off in 2023 as a result of Brexit and for the average Londoner the hit was a painful £3,400. The government constantly tries to persuade people that the economy is improving but whatever statistics it produces fail to ring true with people who know they are worse off. And the fact is that they would be better off if Brexit had not happened.

Sunak, the Brexit supporter, cannot acknowledge that. He and his party have, however, at least given up on trying to laud the wonderful trade deals that have replaced the UK’s former relationship with the massive trading bloc on its doorstep. Kemi Badenoch, the trade minister, has been travelling the globe trying to sign up partners and getting cross with critics who do not appreciate her efforts. But since the OBR has come out with the blunt verdict that “New trade deals with non-EU countries will not have a material impact,” she might have benefited the country more by saving the airfare.

The fact is that being part of the Single Market was hugely valuable to the UK. Leaving the EU – and making a dreadful hash of negotiating the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which was to govern relationships for the future – seriously damaged the economy and could do so even more as further regulations and tariffs impinge on trade. Smaller firms have really struggled to cope with the new environment and many have simply stopped exporting to the EU, even though in some cases it was their sole export market.

Getting back into the Single Market, or securing an arrangement that came close to it, ought to be the obvious solution for a government keen to grow the economy. But the EU will not budge on its refusal to decouple Single Market membership from freedom of movement and, in a country where the number one begetter of Brexit, Nigel Farage, is picking up support on a massive scale, Labour cannot be seen to be opening the UK’s doors to an influx of Europeans. That this ageing population needs them is irrelevant and not a case that Starmer, and less still, Sunak would dare to make.

For the sake of the UK economy, one has to hope that prime minister Keir Starmer will take a more pragmatic view than he has shown during the campaign and immediately start seeking the alignment on regulations that would begin to ease trade. In the meantime, he could be talking more enthusiastically about the UK rejoining EU projects such as Erasmus and working more closely with Europe on vital areas like defence, security and crime.

Since July 2022, support for rejoining the EU has been consistently higher than support for staying out and it continues to grow. Conveying some of that enthusiasm to our erstwhile partners ahead of taking office might stand the incoming prime minister in better stead with the organisation than trying to ignore its importance.

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