Brexit has become the banned word of British politics. Rishi Sunak never breathes it. Say it to Keir Starmer and he affects not to hear. Brexit is axed, cancelled, forbidden, dismissed as boring. Not just that, but YouGov reports that 56% of the public regrets the country ever having voted for it, with just 32% still in favour. Brexit, the great self-harm, has become the Great Mistake.
Britain is the only major world economy that has failed to return to its pre-Covid growth performance. Economists regard Brexit as a prime cause. The Office for Budget Responsibility reports that the negative impact of Brexit has been double that of Covid, reducing GDP in the long-term by a full 4%. Not a day passes without farmers, fishers, manufacturers, care providers, academics or artists complaining of impeded trade and crippled labour supply. Brexit has added 6% to food prices, according to some estimates. Make UK claims 43% of companies regard the UK as a declining place for investment.
Asking Brexiters to list their much-touted “opportunities” from having “taken back control” is like asking evangelicals to predict the second coming: it will be one day. They claim the fault lies in weak ministers and Whitehall sabotage. Ask why slashing EU immigration has driven up non-EU immigration to unprecedented levels, and the answer is “short term”. The promised “bonfire of regulations” has failed to combust, with desperate traders, food scientists and conservationists all warning against permitting a collapse in standards.
The public has noticed. YouGov’s November opinion poll found that 19% of those who voted to leave now regret it. In a poll of polls, a majority said they would vote to rejoin, including a majority of all under-65s and 79 per cent of under-24s.
What is not for politicians to understand? They mumble disbelief at the figures or they suspect, more plausibly, that people cannot face the same argument over again. In addition are the famous 50 “red wall” seats supposedly won by Boris Johnson through leave voters deserting Labour for the Tories. Sunak is terrified of them going back while Starmer is terrified of the opposite.
Both parties are thus hamstrung by a minority veto. As a result, neither leader dares move an inch towards seeking some new accommodation with the EU. When Sunak last November murmured the possibility of a Swiss-style deal, his office demanded he instantly retract like a scalded cat.
As Britain heads towards what could be its deepest recession since the second world war, the result is that there is no coherent conversation on how best to avert it. The economy is lurching from the sunny uplands of the Major-Blair years back to 1970s stagflation. Every sensible analyst knows that somehow Britain must negotiate its way back into Europe’s wider economic area. Offshore islands cannot cut themselves off from their adjacent mainland. This is not about “taking back control”, it is about reducing regulatory and tariff barriers to trade and easing the movement of goods and people. It is absurd for Britain to be barring seasonal workers from Europe, while scouring Asia and Africa for migrants who tend to be permanent.
One glimmer of hope is the vexed Northern Ireland protocol. Johnson’s view of Brexit as personal machismo was also an exercise in how to make a problem insoluble. Everyone’s back was put up. Sunak is not that stupid. Last week, he and an EU delegation agreed what everyone knew, that digital technology could facilitate trade with Northern Ireland by identifying destination. They need now to agree on standards regulation and dispute adjudication.
This path will be tough. That is because Johnson’s insistence on leaving the single market under hard Brexit was so devastating. In the short term, retreat cannot involve rejoining the EU, if only because the EU is unlikely to welcome and digest a returning UK, however remorseful. There can only be a determined series of frontline adjustments to the 2020 EU-UK trade deal, to agree regulations and ease the flow of goods, services and people.
Scandinavia, Switzerland and possibly now Ireland have found bespoke compromises to enable them to prosper together in a continent they all share. Last year, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon even admitted that an independent Scotland would need to supervise a “hard border” for goods with England. Clearly, these issues are not to go away.
Complexity does not diminish urgency. Disaster now would be an alliance of pro-Johnson Tory MPs with Northern Ireland’s anti-protocol DUP, throwing up another minority veto. The Tories are drifting towards the fate of Republicans in the US and Netanyahu rightwingers in Israel. They cannot do unity.
The DUP must not be allowed to take control of Brexit purely as a means to advance its unionist agenda. That is why the spectacle of Sunak and Starmer shouting at each other across the dispatch box is so unsettling. They must at heart agree on Brexit. They must be capable of forming a coalition of common sense. Hence the sooner they start down the route to “a better Brexit”, the better. That means recognising that such an outcome is clearly what a majority of voters want. Unlike Britain’s politicians, these voters at least have the guts to admit they were wrong.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist