Jonathan Lis explores whether telling the truth about leaving the EU would take the entire establishment down too
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The headlines from the last week have been typical enough. Britain’s car manufacturing has slumped to a 66-year low. The UK and EU have still not agreed a deal to resolve the impasse over Northern Ireland, which has paralysed that nation’s governance. And now the International Monetary Fund has projected that the UK will be the only advanced economy to shrink its GDP in 2023. Three years on from Brexit, things are not going well.
Of course, you might not know or believe that if you simply listened to our political leaders. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak regularly extols the “benefits of Brexit” in his public statements, while either listing things that could have happened while the UK was in the EU or things that aren’t benefits.
Last week, in a speech about risk-taking, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt declared that the Government’s plan for growth is “necessitated, energised and made possible by Brexit”, which must be a “catalyst for… bold choices” using the “nimbleness and flexibilities” it allows.
Much like the Government’s plan for growth, Britain’s nimbleness and flexibility does not appear to be much in evidence. It is not just about the economy flagging so far behind comparable nations in Europe – Brexit has not created the innovative nirvana promised by deregulation either: partly because the vast majority of EU regulations were both useful and agreed to by the UK Government to begin with, and partly because the UK is too small to function as its own regulatory space.
Britain will always be tied to the EU’s sphere, except now without the means to shape it. The UK has not even managed the raft of promised new trade deals. Those it has signed are expected to add a fraction of a percent to GDP – not a substitute for erecting crippling barriers with our largest trading partner.
The country, we are told, wants to move on from Brexit. The seven years since the referendum have been toxic. So why can’t we?
The main reason is that no major politician has allowed us to. Not one senior minister has ever admitted that this was an economic mistake. In other words, not one of them has ever confronted the basic truth.
If Brexiters had the requisite courage or decency, they could easily concede that leaving the Single Market had been bad for exports and supply chains, and that ending free movement had exacerbated a chronic labour shortage in the economy. It would not mean renouncing their project. They could seek to fall back on more abstract arguments about sovereignty or control and, even if Remainers disagreed, the nation might at least settle on a shared reality. But they have not.
Even the Chancellor – a former Remain voter so frequently (and erroneously) perceived as a pragmatist – offers any number of excuses for Britain’s economic sluggishness, but refuses to countenance the slightest effect from the country’s most significant economic policy of the past 50 years.
Astonishingly, the intellectual godparents of this project, both inside and outside the Government, peddle as many lies as they did in 2016. The buzzwords may have changed – ‘freeports’, ‘vaccine rollout’ and ‘bold choices’ instead of ‘NHS’, ‘Turkey’ and ‘take back control’ – but the fundamental dishonesty remains.
Seven years on, the referendum’s slogans sound preposterous to the point of incredulity. A health service destined to receive a weekly £350 million windfall is now crashing around us; Turkey is further than ever from joining the EU; and any ‘control’ has been hoarded by ministers, with Parliament shut out at every turn. The European Parliament has more say over the EU’s new trade deals than the House of Commons does over the UK’s.
What would happen if Britain’s political leaders dared to tell the truth? Here is the most existential kind of dishonesty: a lie so etched on the body politic that to expose it will somehow take the entire establishment down too.
Even the politicians who didn’t want Brexit now have to pretend that it could be a success. The Labour leadership has no genuinely substantive plans to upgrade the UK’s economic relationship with the EU. Politically, it is understandable that Keir Starmer wants to avoid reopening the divisions of 2016-19, and perhaps it is too early to contemplate a return to the Single Market or Customs Union.
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But Labour could at least acknowledge that leaving those economic institutions was a mistake. It does not – not because such a move would be unpopular with voters, but because it would fall foul of the editors of the Sun and Daily Mail.
The problem is deeply ingrained. The Conservative Party and its media outriders cast challenge to Brexit as an act of sedition. Even now, mainstream or centrist media organisations seem afraid to dispute the official narrative. To do so continues to invite a charge of opposing the democratic ‘will of the people’ that an out-of-touch journalist class thinks it knows best. The words ‘traitors’, ‘enemies’ and ‘elites’, so frequently tossed around the public forum at the height of the Brexit years, never lie far from the surface.
All of which leads to the strangest part of all: Brexit is no longer even popular.
A comprehensive new poll by Unherd has found that, in every constituency in the country bar three, voters now think that leaving the EU was a mistake. A recent YouGov survey found that a record number of leave voters (19%) now regret their choice. The most common reason was that things have got worse since the referendum.
The irony is that Brexit was never even popular before it was implemented. Polls throughout 2019 indicated that, on balance, the public thought it was wrong to have voted to leave. In one poll, a majority of Conservative voters said it had been wrong to even ask the question. In the only formal poll that took place – the 2019 General Election – 53% of votes went to parties that supported a new referendum or revoking the first one outright.
And yet, three years ago this week, nearly four years after a referendum that was supposed to usher in a new golden economic age, Brexit happened. It is too late to go back into the EU – for many years, at least. But it is not too late to be open with the public about what has actually taken place.
Perhaps Jeremy Hunt is right that Brexit offers us the chance to take risks – but the biggest risk was, and remains, Brexit itself. It wasn’t worth it.
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