25 June 2023

Weekly Briefing: Seven-year glitch


Seven years on from the EU referendum, what began with a political earthquake has, over time, turned into more of a sustained whimper.

Of course, the usual suspects are having their say: Alastair Campbell’s been on a special edition Question Time telling voters they were lied to (which apparently he hates now), Tony Blair’s commissioned some polling out about how people feel about Brexit (not great, it turns out).

But even as convinced a Europhile as Blair knows there is scant evidence that voters want to relitigate a question that has cast a pall of vicious tedium over British politics for the best part of a decade. And that’s before you consider the potential conditions of re-entry: free movement, joining the euro, and little chance of regaining our once-cherished rebate.

Perhaps because of the length and intensity of the second referendum campaigning, simply honouring the result and staying out of the EU permanently will feel like a triumph for some Leave voters. Others, however, will be wondering what it was all for.

That’s because the Government has failed to articulate a vision of what leaving the EU actually means for Britain, beyond signing the odd trade deal. Joining the CPTPP is surely a welcome move, but it’s not obvious where it fits into an overarching economic strategy. 

After all, none of Rishi Sunak’s five pledges or Jeremy Hunt’s ‘four Es’ centre on post-Brexit autonomy in trade and regulation. Hunt’s most recent Budget mentions that Brexit was ‘a decision to change our economic model’, but you would be hard-pressed to find many core government economic policies that have shifted – at least not in a direction that makes us more competitive and dynamic a market. Indeed, the most notable recent government announcement was Kemi Badenoch’s decision to be more judicious about getting rid of retained EU legislation, rather than torching the whole heap at once.

And on the key question of immigration, the trend has been in the opposite direction to what many thought they were voting for. Rather than reducing the numbers, we’ve ended up with net migration figures higher than at any time we were in the EU. 

Absent a clear path of sense of purpose, it’s unsurprising that Brexit has become a catch-all in some voters’ mind for a more general malaise – much as the EU itself became a lightning rod for criticism of an economic settlement that wasn’t working for lots of British voters. 

So what does the future hold? 

For all the polling about ‘Bregret’, of which Blair’s is only the latest instance, there’s little serious enthusiasm for rejoining. Even arch-Remainer David Lammy said this week that a future Labour government would not countenance such a thing. That’s less a Damascene conversion on Lammy’s part than an admission of political reality. 

But Brexit still does matter enormously – if not as a live political issue, then as a factor shaping Britain’s economic future. 

Labour’s approach would probably be to gradually reintegrate the UK into Brussels’s orbit through the back door – an agreement here, a tweak to the TCA there. Like Theresa May’s original approach, the aim would be to minimise any damage, but the effect would be to steadily cut ourselves off from the possibility of doing things differently and better.

The truth is, whoever is in government, there will be in a constant push-pull movement with Brussels for the foreseeable future. Which is why, strange though it sounds after so much sound and fury, Brexit has still barely got started.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.