The quest to find the elusive benefits of Brexit came to a fitting end at last month’s Great British Beer Festival. The prime minister pulled a pint of stout for an uncomfortable photo opportunity while announcing that the price of beer in pubs would come down thanks to Brexit.
“We have taken advantage of Brexit to simplify the duty system to reduce the price of a pint and to back British pubs,” he declared. Perhaps Rishi Sunak, a teetotaller, has a vision of pubs being packed with beer swillers who will be so delighted at their cheaper drinks that they will show their gratitude by voting Conservative at the next election. But pubs also serve wine, and the price of a glass is going up. Alcohol duties are also rising on spirits, including gin.
The reality is that these Brexit benefits do not exist. For that reason, the government is having to resort to subterfuge, claiming that a gesture of support for pubs counts as a benefit.
A brief glimpse at the figures tells a very different story. According to analysis by Alix Partners and CGA by NIQ, the market research firm, in the three years to March 2023, 13,793 hospitality venues shut. That is more than double the number of closures in the previous three years. And, while Covid and the cost of living crisis must take some of the blame, it is the loss of EU staff that is putting many out of business.
A succession of polls show that the British public think Brexit was a mistake. This is now turning into a willingness to rejoin the EU. A YouGov poll in mid-July found 51% would vote to rejoin and 32% to stay out, which, excluding “don’t knows” would translate into 61% in favour and 39% against.
So why is there no political party speaking up for that silent majority? Even the Liberal Democrats, who boast about being the most pre-Europe of the mainstream parties, cannot utter the word “rejoin”. In recent by-elections the Lib Dem ploy was simply to avoid the topic completely. When forced into giving an answer, the party resorts to an ultra-cautious four-point plan, to build closer relationships with the EU and eventually rejoin the single market.
Labour is even more wary of the issue. Keir Starmer will turn somersaults to avoid any discussion of Brexit and the mere suggestion of rejoin has the same effect on him as garlic for a vampire. His position is clear: ahead of the election, he is intent on upsetting as few voters as possible and that includes red wall voters who supported Brexit and haven’t yet given up on the idea.
There is a conflict between this position and Starmer’s determination to appear economically responsible, a determination that has led him to support the ban on benefits for more than two children per family. While this has upset many of his MPs, his calculation must be that those who are interested in a more generous welfare system will always stick with Labour, whereas any hint of a move towards rejoin could cost him votes. This, despite the fact that Brexit was an economically illiterate decision and reversing it would have obvious benefits for the economy.
The Centre for European Reform estimates that the Brexit hit to GDP is around 5.5%. Trade figures consistently demonstrate that putting up trade barriers with your biggest market is a surefire way to lower exports. Many smaller firms have found the obstacles now in place insurmountable and have withdrawn completely from exporting. It’s no surprise that the International Monetary Fund predicts that the UK will be the only major economy to shrink this year. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently published research showing the UK economy is still below its pre-pandemic level, and will not surpass that level until late 2024. We are in the most prolonged period of lost economic growth since the financial crisis of 2008.
The government understands the difficulties, although no minister would publicly acknowledge them. Instead, they keep quietly pushing back deadlines for the erection of more barriers. The latest to be put on indefinite hold is the proposed UKCA marking. The idea was that products on sale in the UK would have to carry the UKCA mark as evidence of the safety of electronic, industrial and consumer goods; the EU’s CE quality standard would no longer be acceptable. The rules were originally destined to apply from January 2022, but implementation was first postponed and then put off indefinitely.
Similarly, the introduction of checks at ports has been delayed because of the tacit admission that they risk causing chaos. Yet while the government carries on trying to put off the worst of Brexit, the opposition parties fail to call out the hypocrisy by stating the obvious: the UK would be better off in the EU.
While the risk of upsetting voters influences Labour’s silence on the issue, it is hard to think that a potential Lib Dem voter would do anything other than welcome a bold Brexit position from Ed Davey. But perhaps he and Starmer see the path to rejoining as being too fraught with difficulties. The UK left with a reputation for being an intensely difficult member of the club and has further tarnished its credentials since then, showing no respect for international treaties. It has recently been rebuffed for having tried to negotiate easier trading terms with individual EU states, bypassing the EU itself, a tactic that is strictly verboten and which has backfired.
The UK’s behaviour over the Horizon project has been crass as well as self-defeating. Scientists in the UK are desperate to regain access to the funds and international collaboration it brings; Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, opened up the discussion on whether Britain might rejoin Horizon. The UK started – and still continues – to haggle over terms.
For the EU, the prospect of that haggling on a much greater scale, over Britain rejoining the EU, would be far from attractive. It has other issues to grapple with. The feedback from Brussels now is that it has moved on from the drama of Brexit and that the UK is not on its priority list. But, if it had to talk terms, then the UK would be asked to pay a full price, without the benefit of the opt-outs negotiated by Mrs Thatcher.
Then there would be the question of the single currency. Many Britons are still wedded to their pound. It may be hard to believe but a faction of the Conservative Party still thinks that the voters would rejoice if the country were to abandon the metric system and revert to the irrational, idiosyncratic imperial weights and measures system. No doubt, in Sunak’s imaginary pub, the punters dream of a land of pounds and ounces, perches and poles.
But, apart from a very fringe group who idolise Jacob Rees-Mogg, most younger voters have grown up using euros in Europe and seeing cyber currencies gain ground. The idea of a national identity being tied up in a coinage is unlikely to resonate with them. “Sovereignty”, the concept that played such a crucial role in the Brexit debate, remains as amorphous now as it was during the referendum.
If “sovereignty” has been regained, there is little to show for it. The UK is poorer financially and also culturally. The loss of freedom of movement has deprived people of the mind-broadening experience of living and working in Europe; it has made touring almost impossible for musicians and dancers and it has curtailed school exchanges. The opposition parties should be shouting about these losses.
What keeps them from doing so is the fear of being hit by a grenade labelled “immigration”. The converse of Britons enjoying freedom of movement is EU citizens being free to come to the UK. No matter that those are the nurses and the doctors, the plumbers and the builders, the chefs and the waiters that we need and for whom the government is now trying to construct elaborate visa schemes to retrieve their services. Politicians on all sides seem to believe that Suella Braverman’s rhetoric about “securing our borders” is what British voters want to hear.
Yet research tells a different story. A study by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London published this year, found that of the 17 countries it examined, the UK had the most positive attitude to immigration. A broader survey of 29 countries by Ipsos put the UK as third most welcoming, shortly behind Spain and New Zealand.
It is illegal migration that concerns the public, and particularly Tory voters, which is why Sunak is so wedded to his hapless “Stop the Boats” crusade, although Britons are generally very sympathetic to genuine refugees.
The tide of migrants is not going to stop as war, famine and drought continue to blight lives in large parts of the world. Getting anywhere close to a solution requires international cooperation, and a joint EU approach would be infinitely more productive than the empty gesture of throwing money at Rwanda, or sending migrants to Ascension Island.
Being part of the Single Market brings benefits way in excess of anything that the “new” trade deals that the government has managed to sign can deliver. Any sensible politician interested in the UK economy should be campaigning for re-entry as quickly as possible.
But being part of a united Europe brings so much more: influence on the world stage, education opportunities for our youngsters, enhanced security at a time when China has to be reckoned with and Russia is on the offensive.
Brexit isn’t working. The central aim of the next government must be to undo the harm it has done.