Friday 29 September 2023

Brexit: unsettled and still not settleable

The most striking thing about Brexit is that, as many of them now accept, the Brexiters have failed to secure public support for actual Brexit – that is, the form of Brexit that exists. Indeed, some of the most committed Brexiters, including Nigel Farage, regard actual Brexit as having been a failure. But if actual Brexit has few defenders, every alternative to it has highly vocal attackers.

Brexit unsettled

I mention in the updated edition of my book on Brexit that David Frost suggested in an interview that: “one piece of evidence of failure [of Brexit] would be if we are still debating this in five- or six-years’ time in the same way. I think [if] it is to succeed it needs to settle in the British polity.” That was in June 2022, and over a year later there’s every sign that this test of failure is going to be met. It has not ‘settled in the British polity’, not least so far as public opinion is concerned.

Thus, the latest opinion poll (p.9 of report accessible via link) shows 49% would vote to rejoin, 38% to stay out, 7% don’t know and 5% would not vote. With the odd outlier, that has been pretty much what the polls have shown for two years now. Meanwhile, on the slightly different question of whether it was right or wrong to leave the EU, the latest poll shows 56% think it was a mistake to leave and just 32% that it was right (with 12% don’t knows), a lead for ‘mistake’ which has been slowly but steadily growing for the last two years. These polls are all the more remarkable given how little mainstream political support there has been to rejoin the EU, and the extent to which the pro-Brexit media have trumpeted the supposed success of Brexit.

But if there is something like a consensus that Brexit has failed, and a strong, though not overwhelming, degree of public support for rejoining as the solution, there’s almost no political consensus about the reasons for the failure and even less for rejoining being the solution. In particular, the leaders of the two main parties are committed to slightly, though, as I argued in last week’s post, genuinely, different versions of how the failures of actual Brexit can be remedied without fundamentally changing its institutional form, let alone rejoining the EU.

I say ‘the leaders of the two main parties’ because it is very clear that, within the Tory Party, there are many powerful groups, including most of its rank-and-file membership, which want a radically different, and much ‘harder’, policy than Sunak’s ad hoc fixes of aspects within the current Brexit. It’s not even as if the most important of those fixes, the Windsor Framework, can be seen to have ‘settled’, in that it is still strongly opposed by Northern Irish unionists and many Brexiters and, anyway, has yet to be implemented.  

Likewise, although perhaps less vocal, there are many in the Labour Party, and especially in its own rank-and-file, who would like something much softer, up to and including rejoining the EU, than Starmer’s more comprehensive softening of the current Brexit. For example, it is telling that Gordon Brown, whilst endorsing Starmer’s approach, advocates ultimately seeking to rejoin the EU. In this sense, the difference between the two parties’ approaches is greater than it appears on paper. For, behind it, lie much bigger differences in where the internal pressure on the leaders is pushing them.

Overall, having once been touted as a solution to Britain’s problems, actual Brexit is now almost universally understood in the commentary upon it to be a problem in need of a solution. However, since neither main party can explicitly, and certainly not fully, acknowledge this, their proposals are to different degrees anaemic. It’s difficult to think of any other issue in modern British political history, especially an issue of the magnitude of Brexit, where the substantive discussions occur to so great an extent outside formal politics. It’s almost the opposite of the way that, in the 2017-2019 period, the chaos and division in parliament very much represented that within the country. Now, such parliamentary debate about Brexit as occurs is a pale imitation of the wider discussions.

Associate membership?

One such discussion concerns the plan, floated in an academic report commissioned by the French and German governments, for forms of EU associate membership that could include the UK. In effect, this would be a form of soft Brexit and could include single market membership. Although, as I noted in last week’s post, a Labour spokesperson immediately dismissed it, it has found considerable support within the business community, which may well continue to pressure a future Labour government to at least give it serious consideration.

As for the Brexit commentariat, a common reaction was that this suggestion had come too late, and should have been made before the referendum. So said Patrick O’Flynn in the Spectator, Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph (£) and Roger Bootle, also in the Telegraph (£). The latter two, at least, seem to think that, prior to the referendum this would have been an acceptable outcome, but all three are adamant that it would no longer be so, although the arguments they advance for that – mainly about the UK being a ‘rule-taker’ – don’t really explain why, if that would have been acceptable before it has ceased to be. Indeed, if anything, that argument (which in any case somewhat understated the influence that, say, Norway has over single market rules) now looks weaker as, in practice, we have seen that hard Brexit in many ways makes the UK a de facto rule taker because of the impracticality of divergence.

In any case, it is disingenuous to say the idea has come too late, as it was floated several times in the years before the referendum, including in 2012, when some Brexiters (as we would now call them) dismissed it as a “Brussels plot to make Britain a second-class member”. It’s true that others of them welcomed it, and it’s also true that some Brexiters, including Hannan, advocated soft Brexit during the Referendum campaign (he even claimed, mendaciously, that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”, when clearly many were). But it is misleading to suggest, as Hannan does, that this outcome was lost because the EU refused it (it was, after all, one, or depending how defined, three of the steps on the ‘Barnier staircase’ of Brexit options) or that it was simply down to Theresa May’s hostility to immigration.

Actually, it happened because ‘liberal Brexiters’ like Hannan hitched themselves to the hard Brexiters, knowing that their promotion of Brexit in order to end freedom movement of people was necessary to win the vote to leave. Then, afterwards, and without much opposition from the ‘liberal Brexiters', the hard Brexiters successfully bulldozed the idea that only leaving the single market would be ‘true Brexit’, enabled by May and her advisers, especially Nick Timothy.

Whilst this is now in some ways ancient history, it remains very much alive given the re-emergence of discussion of an associate membership model, in the new context of EU debates about enlargement. Equally, it remains alive for the UK given dissatisfaction with Brexit, and might well be the basis for public consensus. After all, not only do the articles mentioned provide no obvious reason why ‘soft Brexiters’ should not, now, support such a model given that they did before, they also acknowledge that it would have an appeal to some, probably many, remainers. And whilst O’Flynn claims “it would settle nothing and satisfy almost no one politically” he gives no real explanation of why that might so, whilst ignoring the fact that the same could certainly be said of the current situation.

Arguably, some form of soft Brexit would have been the most logical and consensual way of delivering the close Referendum result, given that it had happened, and the associate membership version of it would surely be a more logical position for a Labour government, inheriting a desperate economic situation and unburdened by the Tories’ fetishization of divergence from the EU at all costs. If Starmer’s fear is that it would mean freedom of movement of people then, apart from the fact that the UK continues to suffer serious labour shortages as a result of Brexit, those for whom the allure of hard Brexit was reducing immigration must surely by now to have realized that, for good reasons, that has not been its effect. Moreover, given that Labour recognize the need for a mobility agreement for travelling performers, there’s no real logic to refuse to see the damage that ending free movement has done more generally.

In fact, the main argument for a Labour government not to pursue associate membership (acknowledging that, as things stand, it is only an idea, not something that is on offer from the EU) is the possibility that it would be reversed by a future Tory government, making it harder to negotiate with the EU. For what very little it is worth, my guess is that something like associate membership is probably where both parties will settle within about ten years and, then, it will become the UK’s settled position in the EU.

The National Rejoin March

The unsettled nature of Brexit was illustrated by, as well as being the background to, last Saturday’s National Rejoin March, apparently, and if so shamefully, not reported by the BBC. Predictably, it was mocked by GB News as an “epic failure” on the basis that it had only attracted 5000 people, which, taken in conjunction with the Brexiters insistence that ‘the elite’ are on the point of rejoining, provides a fresh illustration of populists’ proclivity to depict their enemies as both hopelessly feeble and threateningly potent.

Actually, the march organizers claimed the police estimate to be over 20,000 which would be quite impressive, but even 5000 would have been a decent number. Any demonstration only mobilises a small fraction of those who support its cause, and that’s especially so when there is no current, live proposal on that cause, in this case to rejoin the EU, let alone a decision point on such a proposal. So the march was bound to be attended only by the hard core of the hard core of rejoin campaigners.

As such, it was fronted by some familiar figures. Without any disrespect to them, eventually a successful campaign will need both different and more high-profile figureheads, as Nick Tyrone argues in the Spectator, including a high-profile ex-Brexiter if one could be found. I don’t, though, think Tyrone is right to propose veterans like Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine as alternatives; better would be people who hold, or might reach, the levers of conventional political power. It will also need a more pro-active and forward-looking message than ‘reversing Brexit’.

But that’s for the future. For now, what’s most important, even speaking as someone who thinks any prospect of rejoining is a long way off (or perhaps especially because I think that), is for that hard core of campaigners simply to ‘keep the dream alive’.  The Brexiters of GB News and elsewhere should be wary of mocking that. In the years before Brexit, their ‘dream’ of leaving was similarly only the passion of a hard core and, unlike that dream, the rejoin cause not only has a far clearer level of support in the opinion polls, it also has demographics on its side.

Rejoining and electoral politics

However, the current rejoin movement does differ from what became the Brexit movement in its relationship with political parties. It has no equivalent of UKIP, and there’s little sign of one developing. That seems wise, for two reasons. Firstly, whereas UKIP, ironically, was able to parasitically exploit proportional representation in the European Parliamentary elections to secure itself representation and legitimacy, this is obviously no longer open to a hypothetical rejoin party. Secondly, both for that reason and more generally, UKIP operated by pressurizing the Tory Party from the outside towards ‘Euroscepticism’ and, eventually, to hold the referendum. But, currently, partly because Brexit is not the only issue at stake, even for many rejoiners, such a tactic applied to pressurize the Labour Party, or even the LibDems, would carry what for many would be the unconscionable risk of enabling a Tory government, and very likely make any path to rejoining even longer, and to make Brexit even more damaging in the meantime.

The latter issue also makes life complicated for the individual voting decisions of rejoiners. There really isn’t much choice outside Scotland, where the SNP has a rejoin policy, although, naturally, that is very much a policy for Scotland joining the EU after gaining independence from the UK*. That lack of choice is partly for all the familiar reasons of the First Past the Post system, and the limitations that imposes even on tactical voting in many constituencies. But those reasons are compounded by the fact that no major party, even if the Greens are included amongst them, is offering a ‘rejoin now’ policy, although in Wales Plaid Cymru has a policy to rejoin the single market (I think, but may be wrong, without delay).  Labour’s position, discussed in my previous post, is at least currently opposed to ever rejoining, whilst the LibDems offer is ‘one day, but not now’.

So all that rejoiners really have as an option at the coming election is voting against the Tories, whatever the most effective way of doing that may mean in individual constituencies, on the basis that their Brexit position is the worst of the lot, and that the other parties might, in the future and with pressure, become closer to, or even come to embrace, rejoining. Not voting at all, or voting for a very fringe party that does support rejoin, might feel principled, but in practical terms just leaves it to others to decide what happens. And, beyond all that, rejoiners need to recognize that influencing UK policy is all they can do, and that is only one side of the equation because, of course, ultimately rejoining could only happen with the agreement of the EU and its members.

What should rejoiners do now?

One of the benefits of having re-opened comments on this blog, is that it enables me to respond to queries or even to requests for topics to be covered in posts. Last week, commenter Vivienne Pay asked for my “thoughts on what an active campaign movement to rejoin should look like to be effective”. I’m not the best person to answer, because I’m an analyst more than a campaigner and because, as noted above, I’m fairly cautious about the prospects for rejoining. I also suspect that some of my thoughts will be unpopular with some readers. But, for what little they may be worth, here they are:

DO …

·         Keep going. Whether rejoin is an immediate or, as I think, long prospect, it will only happen if there is pressure for it, and the more pressure there is the more likely it becomes. At the same time, recognize that it is going to be a long haul

·         Keep pointing to the failures of Brexit. That may be negative, and, ultimately, the campaign case for rejoining needs to be positive, but we are not in that campaign yet. Although public opinion may have turned against Brexit to keep it that way, and to harden and extend it, the message of its failure, and of the failed promises made for it, still needs to be communicated. That doesn’t, of course, preclude also pointing to the positive advantages of membership which, in many cases, will be the flip-side of the negatives of Brexit anyway.

·         Be prepared for support for rejoin and opposition to Brexit to fluctuate in the opinion polls, especially to the extent that they are bound up with the current unpopularity of the Tories and the current cost-of-living crisis. Opinion polls matter hugely, but they’re not, in themselves, a reason to argue for or against rejoining. The case for doing so would be the same, even if it had less support. Equally, the current polls are by no means overwhelming, and public support for rejoining shouldn’t be over-stated or taken for granted.

·         React positively to leave voters who openly express regret. Their votes will be needed, and the more who publicly recant without being pilloried, the more likely it is that their numbers will grow. Even saying ‘I told you so’, whilst hugely tempting, is self-indulgent and counter-productive.

·         Ignore getting tangled in issues about whether rejoining means joining the Euro, or Schengen, or what it would means for budget contributions. For one thing, it’s too early to know what it means. For another, it risks getting drawn into the old transactional mentality of ‘what do we put in’ and the old Eurosceptic mentality of ‘what can we get out of’ that blighted our original membership.

·         More generally, configure the issue as ‘joining’ rather than ‘rejoining’: it’s about the future, not resurrecting the past. Both the UK and the EU will be different.


·         Keep banging on about the 2016 Referendum having ‘only been advisory’. It was always a politically meaningless argument, and after the Article 50 vote in parliament it was legally meaningless, too. It’s backward-looking, and just feeds the Brexiter narrative of remainers ‘refusing to accept the result’. If you don’t agree, just try to imagine who on earth is going to hear you say it for the umpteenth time and suddenly think ‘oh, well, in that case I think we should rejoin’. The answer is literally no one.

·         Keep banging on about how ‘only 37% of the electorate voted for it in 2016’. That, too, was always a pointless argument - votes are decided by those who vote. Again, if you don’t agree, ask yourself the question who is going to hear you say it for the umpteenth time and suddenly think ‘oh, well, in that case I think we should rejoin’? Again, the answer is no one.

·         Assume that individual EU politicians saying that the UK is welcome back any time it is ready is the same as that being the position of the EU or its members. Think instead about making the case for why the rejoining could be made more attractive to the EU (this point is developed in some detail by Niall Ó Conghaile in East Anglia Bylines). Don’t repeat the Brexiters’ mistake of seeing everything in terms of UK politics and UK needs, or of assuming that the UK knows ‘what is in the EU’s best interest’.

·         Dismiss any progress short of rejoining as a waste of time. Even if the immediate practical benefits are tiny, they are better than measures which do even more harm, and simply repairing the damage to the UK’s reputation and trustworthiness in the EU is helpful and will take time – and will be one pre-requisite of making any UK application to join appealing to the EU.

Brexit un-settleable

How the rejoin movement conducts itself, and how it develops, will be one factor in what happens with Brexit. The outcome of the next election will be another. Ultimately, Brexit will not ‘settle’ until there is a durable political and public consensus, and the leadership to deliver that consensus, whether it be for some version of hard Brexit, for some version of soft Brexit – perhaps in some form of associate membership – or for rejoining, whether fully or in a different form of associate membership.

The situation we face seems to be far better understood abroad than here. If Brexiters’ really had global vision, as opposed to a hubristic vision of Global Britain, they might be aware of the withering way Brexit is now reported in India (“Brexit: Fatal for Britain?”), China (“UK public realizes Brexit folly, but return to EU not so easy”) or the United States (“In the UK, a disaster no one wants to talk about”). Notably, all these reports concern the disjuncture between, on the one hand, the effects of Brexit and the public view of it and, on the other, the politics of Brexit.

Indeed, what seems so obvious from abroad, and to many at home, is still barely hinted at within formal politics. Some of that is fear of leave voters, of whom there are still many. Some of it is fear of reviving the political toxicity of Brexit, though that is probably more specifically fear of the pro-Brexit media. In fact, though it is a topic for another day, the nature of the British media is perhaps the single biggest cause of the current Brexit impasse. That’s not because the media are all-powerful. It hasn’t stopped the British people coming to the view that Brexit has failed. But it is certainly one of the reasons why so many politicians are too scared to say that out loud, and to propose – or even debate – genuine solutions.



*It’s not clear to me, and I would be happy to be enlightened, what the SNP view would be of the UK rejoining the EU. Would it welcome and support that, on the basis that Scotland never wanted to leave? Or see it as taking away a potent argument for Scottish independence from the UK?

Note: This post was updated at 09.00 on 29/09/2023 to remove a claim made about numbers on the rejoin march which turned out to refer to a previous march.

Friday 22 September 2023

It’s limited, but Labour’s post-Brexit policy does offer voters a choice

This has been quite an important week for post-Brexit politics, in that there has been the clearest indication yet of the approach of the anticipated future Labour government, and certainly the most extensive media coverage of it, perhaps because that prospect is becoming closer. At the same time, there’s been the clearest indication yet of how Labour’s policy will differ, to an extent, from the present Tory government and differ, considerably, from the probable position of a post-election-loss Tory Party.

Labour’s ‘new’ post-Brexit stance

It is the latest stage in what has already been a long, slow process, which I’ve discussed many times in the past on this blog, most recently in June of this year. This means that, in some respects, there is little that is new. Keir Starmer has been talking since July 2022 – although it seemed to have to be dragged out of him – about seeking to improve the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), including a security pact and a veterinary agreement. And in January of this year Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy made what I argued was a significant speech, which included plans for closer and more harmonious relations with the EU.

However, Labour are now making relations with the EU a more central part of their electoral offer, and doing so more loudly and slightly more confidently, perhaps emboldened by the clear polling evidence that so many voters regard Brexit as having been a failure. Indeed the pollster Professor Sir John Curtice argues that Labour aren’t so much being bolder as “playing catch-up” with public opinion.

This began to be signaled by Starmer’s visit to meet Europol officials in The Hague last week to discuss enhanced cross-border intelligence cooperation, during which he announced Labour’s plans to strike a deal with the EU over irregular migration. Then, last weekend, he and David Lammy used a conference in Montreal to re-iterate that in government Labour would seek to re-set relations with the EU as their “number one” foreign policy goal. This isn’t just about the TCA, and would include participation in structured, formal strategic dialogue, presumably along the lines already offered by the EU but rebuffed by Rishi Sunak (£).

During the Montreal visit, Starmer also gave a major interview to the Financial Times, which, tellingly, was widely reported by other media outlets, including the BBC main news bulletins, pledging “to seek a major rewrite of Britain’s Brexit deal” as part of the TCA review in 2026. Subsequently, footage emerged, though it was hardly surprising, of him emphasising that, under Labour, there would be no desire to diverge from EU environmental, food and employment standards. Then, also widely reported, including in the French media, was Starmer’s trip, along with Lammy and Rachel Reeves, to Paris, where he held what seems to have been a positive meeting with Emmanuel Macron.

In last week’s post I suggested that a Labour government might be able to fashion “a more coherent strategy, to the extent that it might pursue closer ties with the EU across all policy areas” and, even in the short period since then, it now seems clear that this is what they will offer. As such, again as I pointed out last week, it offers a contrast to the ad hoc and inconsistent Brexit ‘pragmatism’ of Rishi Sunak, constantly hamstrung by his own lack of vision as well as the leaden, lumpen, dead weight of his Brexit Ultra MPs, and the ever-present Conservative terror of a Farageist revival.

It’s worth adding that, for all that Starmer has repeatedly endorsed the hard Brexit red lines of not re-joining the EU or the single market, he has at least implicitly rejected the Tories’ doctrinaire opposition to (almost) any role for the ECJ. That in itself opens up some space for creating closer relationships with the EU, as it is often what precludes them (for example in relation to security and commercial database sharing). That is a contrast both with one of Theresa May’s original Lancaster House ‘red lines’ and with Boris Johnson’s adolescent ‘sovereignty first’ approach to the TCA negotiations.

Moreover, it is clear from his FT interview that Starmer has set his own red line against the ‘Brexit 2.0’ of derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which so many Brexit Ultras are agitating for and which, possibly, and I would think probably, will be adopted as Conservative policy after the next election. For that matter, given Sunak’s embrace this week of the anti-Net Zero agenda of the Tory right, it’s not inconceivable that, alongside promises of a fresh push to post-Brexit regulatory divergence, it will be their policy before the election. Some may regard Starmer’s stance as a small mercy, but I think it is rather more than that: Brexit itself is bad enough, but Brexit 2.0 on top of it would be even worse.

The Brexiters’ reactions

As this new, or newly communicated, approach from Labour began to emerge, the Brexiters’ knives were sharpened, if sharpness is a quality that can be applied to what, in both senses of the word, are such dull blades. Some of their reaction had a slightly surprising tinge. We’re well-used to them predicting the imminent collapse of the EU, but, in the Telegraph, both Associate Editor Camilla Tominey (£) and columnist Nigel Farage (£) were making the slightly different argument that, according to Tominey, only “poor deluded souls ‘remain’ under the illusion that the EU is some sort of friendly and progressive family of nations” whilst, according to Farage, “it is not the cuddly place Remainers think it is”. As evidence, both of them referred to the rise of the AfD in Germany, the illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary, and the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France. Why would “idiot remainers”, as Farage charmingly put it, want closer ties?

It was a strange line to take. There may be some remainers who are starry-eyed about the EU, but there are at least as many Brexiters who are constantly astonished that the EU is ‘mean’ and ‘unfriendly’ for reserving the rights and benefits of membership to its own members, something which most remainers see as self-evident. And even those with the mildest of liberal sensibilities hardly need instruction from Farage, of all people, about the dangers of neo-fascist and populist regimes. Beyond that, the very fact that individual members of the EU follow their own political paths gives the lie to the Brexiter claim that membership precludes national sovereignty.

But there is an even more fundamental issue, and it lies at the heart of the fallacy of Brexit. Brexiters used to say ‘we’re leaving the EU, not leaving Europe’, a slogan which, unusually, is simultaneously a truism, nonsense, and an important insight. The important insight is that, whether or not the UK is a member of the EU, the EU and its member states are there, right next door to us. Indeed, even if the EU didn’t exist at all, the nations of Europe would be there, right next door to us. Those irreducible geo-political facts mean that, whether in terms of trade, defence, irregular migration or anything else, the UK necessarily has a significant relationship with those countries.

So the issue is how, and how best, to relate to them. Brexiters have never even tried to give a reason why being absent from the institutions that link them is a better way of relating (as opposed to their claims about the supposed benefits domestically, or in terms of relating to non-EU countries and bodies). And they most certainly haven’t given any reason why, having decided to leave those institutions, a relationship of distance and antagonism is better than one of close cooperation.

Otherwise, most of the reactions from Tories, and Brexiters generally, to Labour’s approach have been fairly predictable. Early out of the trap, like an unusually well-conditioned Pavlovian dog hearing the distant ringing of a bell, David Frost dribbled (£) that “Britain is now in serious danger of losing Brexit” because “Labour wants to take us back closer to the EU”. It didn’t make much sense as a critique, though. Frost, like many Brexiters, gives as his central ‘philosophical’ argument that democratically elected UK governments should be free to pursue whatever policies they judge to be in the UK’s best interests. So if such a government decides being closer to the EU is in the national interest, then, even in Frost’s own terms, it doesn’t mean ‘losing’ Brexit but enacting it.

A few days later, Frost came up with the even more predictable line (£) of “Brexit betrayal”. If possible, this made even less sense than his previous effort, if only because, in insisting that the EU would not countenance an improvement to the TCA he negotiated, he not only negated his claim that it was already a wonderful deal – since he implicitly conceded that, were the EU minded to agree, a better deal is possible – he also negated the very claim that a ‘betrayal’ was in prospect.

In fact, this was a recurring contradiction in the Brexiters’ reaction, such as the Mail’s report on Starmer’s meeting with Macron. On the one hand, the prospects of the EU agreeing any re-negotiation were dismissed – strangely, the Brexiters have now abandoned all their claims about Britain ‘holding all the cards’ or ‘them needing us more than we need them’ – whilst, on the other hand, the non-outcome of this non-negotiation was presented as something to fear.

That aside, Frost’s second article was revealing in being laced with disparagement of the present Tory government for “paving the way” to Labour’s supposed betrayal, a good indicator of how the Tories will conduct their election defeat post-mortem. Frost will undoubtedly be a leading player in the autopsy, which seems almost certain to conclude that Sunak failed to be a ‘true’ Conservative and Brexiter. This will, again almost certainly, presage a lurch to the ‘National Conservative’ right. Liz Truss’s attempt this week to exhume the corpse of her disastrous ‘true Brexit’ premiership (£) can also be seen as the beginning of the same dismal process, as discussed by Josh Self, the increasingly excellent political commentator who succeeded Ian Dunt as Editor of

Political dad dancing

The meta-issue in all this, shown by the reaction of Frost and numerous other Brexiters, is the endless betrayalist narrative that permeates Brexit. But its very endlessness shows its absurdity. Just how many times can Brexit be betrayed? And if it has already been betrayed then what does it matter what Labour now do? Similarly, having warned us in October 2019, and in December 2020, and in November 2022 that we were getting ‘Brexit in Name Only’, it is hard to imagine why anyone would feel greatly stirred by Nigel Farage’s latest hand-wringing about how “two years into a Labour government it will [be] Brexit in Name Only”.

In fact, generally, although the Brexiters’ attack on Labour’s plans will undoubtedly continue to resonate with hardcore Leave voters, it’s hard to see it having wider cut-through. Things have moved on from the ‘will of the people’ days, especially given how many voters, including leave voters, have become disillusioned with Brexit, and the way that Sunak’s government has already, in a limited way, accepted the deficiencies of the Johnson Brexit. In this sense, if Labour are still 'playing catch-up' with public opinion, the Tories are simply ignoring it.

For that matter, not only has there been little regulatory divergence from the EU under the Tories – because for the most part it is totally impractical, either politically or economically – but, also, there is considerable public support for things staying that way, including amongst leave voters, in line with Labour’s policy. Similarly, whilst Starmer’s mention of not diverging on environmental, food and employment standards got the predictable ‘betrayal’ treatment on this morning’s Mail front page, a commitment to at least non-regression of environmental and labour standards is part of the TCA that Johnson agreed.

However, the only songs the Brexiters have are the old ones. For example, in his moonlighting role as a GB News presenter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s squeaky diatribe against Labour focused primarily on the possibility of re-negotiating the Brexit deal leading to the UK “shadowing” the EU through “alignment”. But it seemed embarrassingly dated, the political equivalent of dad dancing, given the numerous ways that this is happening under the Tories, for reasons very well-understood by Rees-Mogg himself (£), as illustrated by his support for the idea of the UK unilaterally adopting EU regulations and conformity assessment marking, so as to avoid the ‘red tape’ of divergence or duplication.

Rees-Mogg also deployed an altogether more cynical, and probably more electorally potent, criticism in suggesting that the public had thought that all the arguments about Brexit were over. This was the standard response from the Conservatives, with a government spokesperson telling the BBC that Starmer "wants to take Britain back to square one on Brexit, reopening the arguments of the past all over again". It is a response that eschews any discussion about the merits of a closer relationship with the EU but instead plays upon the perhaps widespread desire amongst the electorate to simply not hear anything more about Brexit. Yet, apart from being cynical, it is also dishonest, since it is the Brexiters who constantly try to drag the debate back to the toxicity of 2016, not least with the accusation that any steps to a closer the relationship are 'betraying Brexit'.

By contrast, Labour’s policy is plainly an attempt to avoid ‘reopening the old arguments’ at all costs, hence Starmer’s insistence that there is no case to re-join the EU or the single market. That attempt attracts the hostility of Brexiters, who argue that his real agenda is rejoining, and that seeking a closer relationship is a route to this. But, ironically, it attracts as much hostility from re-joiners, who argue that his real agenda ought to be rejoining, and that seeking a closer relationship doesn’t offer any route to this.

Towards ‘de-Brexitification’?

My reading is slightly different. I think what Labour are doing, sensibly, is to try to ‘de-Brexitify’ the entire question of UK-EU relations, and to approach them as a policy issue that may be very different in detail, but no different in kind, from the way the UK conducts its relations with other friendly powers. Contrary to the Brexiters’ criticisms, that doesn’t entail reversing Brexit, but contrary to the re-joiners’ criticisms it does not preclude doing so, and is a necessary step to doing so.

If successful, normalizing relations, and not framing them constantly in terms of the now dead question of whether to leave the EU, would be a good thing in itself, undoing some of the damage of Brexit, as well as providing at least one of the preconditions for a viable case for joining the EU to be made (another being an active campaign movement for doing so). To put that another way, whilst Brexiters are wrong to think that Starmer’s insistence that ‘there is no case to re-join’ conceals a current intention to do just that, it really shouldn’t be difficult for re-joiners to envisage that, at some time down the line, he will say that circumstances have changed and that there is now such a case.

It may well be that Labour, at least in public statements, are pinning far too much on the TCA review, which is designed as a technical stock-taking exercise rather than a vehicle for re-negotiation. This week, the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) research centre produced an excellent report on this, explaining that, as things stand, the EU is likely to approach the review from just such a ‘minimalist’ perspective, and that if a Labour government wants to make the scope more ‘maximalist’, then the onus will be on it to persuade the EU that this is worthwhile, which won’t be easy. Moreover, even if that persuasion is successful in setting a maximalist agenda, then pursuing it to a successful conclusion will take a long time to negotiate. Peter Foster and Andy Bounds of the Financial Times provided a similarly cautious analysis (£).

However, an interesting Twitter (or X, or perhaps ex-Twitter) thread by Mujtaba Rahman, the well-connected and insightful Europe MD of the Eurasia Group, offered a perhaps more subtle, and rather more optimistic, perspective. Amongst other things, he argues that the importance of changing the tone of the UK-EU relationship shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s not, as is sometimes dismissively suggested, for the naïve reason of thinking that a more ‘friendly’ atmosphere will make much concrete difference, but because Labour look set to bring what Rahman characterizes as a “more consistent, more serious and more forward-leaning engagement” than the UK government has shown since 2016. That, along with greater realism than the Tories have shown, could create new incentives for the EU to engage with the UK.

Domestically, Rahman suggests that Labour ruling out all forms of re-joining gives them “political cover” to make non-trivial improvements. It’s true, as the UKICE report points out, that even the maximalist version of the TCA review would not greatly shift the economic dial, but the report also provides a list of the substantive improvements that could result. Of course, they aren’t going to ‘make Brexit work’, but it simply isn’t true, despite what most re-joiner critics of Labour insist, that Starmer’s red lines preclude any progress of any value at all. Indeed, that’s demonstrated by the UKICE point that the maximalist version of the TCA review would require protracted negotiation. That would hardly be so if the possible changes were as trivial as those critics claim.

Rahman also points out that the positions of both Labour and the EU are in flux, with many possible outcomes. One indication of this was the publication this week of a Franco-German plan, reported by The Times (£) as being  “designed with Labour in mind”, although better understood as part of a far broader EU discussion about enlargement, for new forms of tiered ‘associate membership’ of the EU, within which the UK might find a place. It’s not an altogether new idea, although the context is, and a shadow minister was quick to disown any interest in it, which is unsurprising as it goes much further than Labour are willing to go this side of the election. But it does point to the way that, as Ian Dunt of the i put it, “a new kind of European future” could emerge for Britain.

The domestic choice

Whether or not that is so, the domestic politics of Brexit are becoming clearer, at least in terms of what the alternative to the Tories’ approach consists of. It is a Labour, or perhaps Labour-led, government which won’t offer (and, arguably, couldn’t deliver, at least in its first term) a reversal of hard Brexit, but will develop as close and as harmonious a relationship as the EU will agree to short of that. That isn’t just about the TCA review, but the entirety of the ongoing relationship.

That opens some clear water between the parties, though it is of slender breadth. As Rafael Behr eloquently put it in the Guardian, “the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both shopping for European policy in the narrow aisle between economic grasp of the problem and political fear of the remedy”. The difference, though, is slightly greater than it seems, and greater than Behr perhaps allows, not so much in itself as in the direction and speed of travel it points to. Just as it is now widely understood, even by most Brexiters, that Brexit is a process, not an event, the same holds for ‘de-Brexitificaton’ and even ‘de-Brexiting’, if they are to happen.

The problem, of course, as Behr concludes, is that “time is already running out”. More accurately, the problem is the tension between two different timescales. The more time that passes since the 2016 referendum, the more the toxicity of Brexit recedes, the more its sensitivity as a political issue reduces, the more the generation of politicians which was obsessed with getting it passes, and the more the electoral demographic that most supported it is replaced by that which was most opposed to it. On the other hand, the more time that goes by without being a member of at least the single market, the more the economic damage racks up as, without also being a member of the EU, does the geo-political damage.

Within that framing, the first timescale isn’t much affected by who is in power, but would be slightly accelerated by a Labour government if only because that would marginalize Tory Brexiter politicians. The second timescale could be slightly shortened by a Labour government, and the interim damage slightly reduced, or possibly considerably reduced compared with what a Tory government might decide to do if elected.

It may not seem like much of a choice, but it is a choice, and this week made it clearer than ever that it will be the one facing us at the next election. The outcome will make some difference to post-Brexit policy in the following years, but could make a huge difference to the choices available in the election after that.


Note: I have re-enabled comments on this blog, for an experimental period, under a strict comments policy.

Friday 15 September 2023

The eighth summer of Brexit: pragmatism without honesty

The recurring word in most commentary on this summer’s Brexit events is ‘pragmatism’. It refers to the range of ways, some quieter than others, in which the government is trying to soften or avoid some aspects of the damage of Brexit. It’s a fair description, so far as it goes, and there is something to welcome in the damage limitation measures it is applied to, so far as they go. It may be further evidence that, as I suggested last March, Britain’s ‘Brexit fever’ is finally breaking. However, it is very far from showing anything like honesty about Brexit, and it consists of ad hoc measures rather than a coherent post-Brexit strategy.

Nevertheless, there is an emerging pattern. For, although this summer’s Brexit news stories are quite disparate in nature and detail, they are all variations on the same theme in being attempts to deal with the consequences of the delusion that Brexit meant ‘taking back control’ without admitting that it was a delusion. It is this which means that such pragmatism as there is still lacks honesty about what Brexit actually means.

How independence brought dependence

This is evident in the only event that prompted me to post during this summer break, namely the decision to indefinitely postpone the introduction of the UKCA mark. I won’t write about it in detail again now, but it was always one of the most hubristic examples of the supposed ‘independence’ that Brexit would bring, and although it has long been on the cards that it would be dropped, much cost has been incurred in indulging that hubris. And whilst dropping it is, indeed, ‘pragmatic’ the government, and Brexiters generally, are reluctant to spell out that it means that Britain is now dependent upon CE marking, dependent upon EU approved bodies to test and certify conformity to the standards necessary for this marking, and effectively accepting the same product standards as the EU.

The UKCA announcement was swiftly followed by reports of yet another delay in the introduction of import controls although, incredibly, it was not until the end of August that the government formally confirmed this.  This also creates a dependency in that, in effect, the UK is now dependent upon the EU to ensure that the goods it exports are safe and meet all requisite standards. But the EU has no responsibility and no system to do this for third countries. As I discussed at some length last time import controls were postponed, this creates increased risks because the UK is no longer part of the eco-system of single market institutions that reduce those risks. Hence the British Veterinary Association has warned that this latest postponement “is putting the UK’s biosecurity at serious risk of imported diseases”.

Those and other risks are real, but they are trumped by the fact that Britain simply can’t afford to implement Brexit import controls. This latest postponement was perhaps the first time the government overtly admitted that doing so would cause inflation, especially of food prices, although it wasn’t the first time that it had been admitted it would cause costs. Jacob Rees-Mogg had already conceded that at the time of the previous postponement. Such admissions also at least implicitly acknowledge the costs in the other direction of trade, in other words the EU controls on UK imports which have been in place since the end of the transition period.

There is perhaps some honesty in this, but even that is concealed by the government’s pretence that its border strategy involves “using Brexit freedoms” and the usual tedious, and again hubristic, rhetoric that when import controls are introduced they will be part of a high-tech “world-class border”. Mere competence, of course, is as disdained as it is elusive. It’s a boast which seems all the more vain given that this summer also saw the very quiet announcement of “a new phased approach” (meaning, again, delayed) to introducing the Customs Declaration Service (CDS), the system meant to replace the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) service. CDS is supposed to provide a much more streamlined service so as to mitigate some of the Brexit frictions but, as I noted in a post in January 2021, it has been subject to persistent delays, going back to at least February 2019.

Freedom to do … not much

The decisions about UKCA and import controls are similar in responding to the impracticality and costs of ‘taking back control’ by acting as if Brexit hadn’t happened. It turns out that the best way to use the wonderful freedoms of Brexit is not to make use of them at all. That is unsayable for the government, and on the same day as the UKCA decision was announced, with the timing perhaps designed to sweeten the pill for Brexiters, the UK’s new post-Brexit alcohol duties regime came into force, complete with the populist tag of the ‘Brexit Pubs Guarantee’.

Here, at least, is something that can be said to have been made possible by Brexit, although whether the specific issue of cheaper beer in pubs required Brexit is disputed by breweries, as are its benefits to the pub trade. More generally, most parts of the alcoholic beverages industry are unhappy about the new regime, and, far from cutting red tape, it introduces a far more complex structure of duties and looks set to create strange anomalies in, for example, the pricing of different strengths of wine.

But even if it is to be counted as a result of Brexit, there are only a very small number of these “micro-divergences” in tax policy, and it is unlikely that there will be many more to come, according to KPMG UK’s Head of Tax Policy. Indeed, in most respects Brexit ‘freedoms’ are unused, not just in relation to tax policy divergence but regulatory divergence, as the latest edition of the UK in a Changing Europe’s regulatory divergence tracker, released in July, shows.

This isn’t, as the Brexit Ultras moan, through lack of political will, but again because doing so is too impractical and costly. However, that doesn’t mean that continuing the pre-Brexit status quo of regulatory alignment in most areas is cost-free. Once outside the single market, it isn’t enough simply to be aligned, it has to be formally demonstrated by individual firms selling into the EU, just as it does by those of any third country. That entails both direct costs, and indirect costs in terms of delays – precisely the kinds of costs that single market membership gets rid of. In short, leaving the single market makes regulatory alignment expensive, but regulatory divergence is even more expensive. So we pay for the price of a freedom we cannot afford to exercise, and Brexiters call this sovereignty.

Freedom to … follow

But it’s actually worse than that. Not only can we not afford to diverge, we cannot afford not to follow. Even without the UK making any active choices to diverge from EU regulations, ‘passive’ divergence occurs whenever the EU itself changes regulations. Each time this happens it puts pressure on the UK to shadow the EU, partly because of the costs to British businesses and organizations of not doing so, and partly because in many cases a failure to do so increases divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, thus ‘thickening’ the Irish Sea border. As time goes by the significance of this “ratchet effect” becomes ever-clearer (£).

The imminent introduction of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is a significant case in point, and we will hear much more about it when transitional implementation arrangements begin this October. As with most things Brexit, the technical details are ferociously complex, but in essence it means a tax on embedded carbon in EU imports of goods in many sectors, with an associated system of trading in carbon certificates, as well as systems of reporting and monitoring. British firms exporting to the EU will be immediately and directly affected (if they are to continue to export), imposing considerable new costs, although reports suggest that most of them are unaware of what is about to happen (£) with CBAM (and with several other major upcoming EU regulatory changes).

At the same time, the UK is planning to have its own CBAM system, although it is unlikely to be ready until at least 2026, and it is possible that in outline it will be very similar to the EU’s. However, unless there is an agreement linking the two systems then British firms will have to show compliance with both. This sounds rather like the ill-fated plan to have ‘our own’ UKCA mark, but UK CBAM is perhaps more akin to the still postponed UK REACH system for the chemicals industry in that both could only link to the EU’s equivalents by agreement with the EU. It is a subtle difference, but an important one. Whereas things like delaying UKCA and import controls, or passive regulatory alignment, can be done by the UK without any agreement from the EU, things like creating linkage or mutual recognition with EU systems overtly make the UK a supplicant to the EU.

Brexit Britain’s supplication

This is evident in a much more politically visible policy area, which has permeated this summer’s news, namely the frenzy over ‘stopping the boats’. Entirely unsurprisingly, the government has discovered that, here too, ‘taking back control’ does not actually have any substantive meaning, and that its policy requires agreements with others – not just the EU, but some of its members, such as France and Italy (£), and other countries, such as Turkey.

Of course, irregular migration is very much an issue across the EU, and were the UK still a member it would have a significant role in shaping EU policy, as well as benefitting from its shared arrangements, such as the Dublin 3 Regulations. That can include the right to return asylum seekers for claims processing in the first safe participating country they reached, and it is reported that Rishi Sunak (£) would like to replicate that right in a UK-EU agreement. Indeed, a returns agreement is something that was sought during the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) negotiations, but the EU turned it down. Reportedly, it has done so again.

It is not difficult to see why. The UK, because of its geographical position, is very unlikely to be the first safe country arrived at (unless arrival was by air) and, if it is, unlikely to then be used as a point of departure to an EU country. So a ‘returns policy’, in itself, would be almost entirely one-way, which is hardly in the interests of the EU or its members. Inevitably, Brexiters are incapable of understanding this, with bone-headed former MEP David Bannerman tweeting rancorously about “our so called friends in the EU showing their true colours again”, and an Express article trotting out the usual paranoid and self-pitying line about “Brexit punishment”.

By contrast, the Labour Party’s plan, which hit the headlines this week, is rather more honest and realistic in recognizing that any deal with the EU needs to offer something for both sides (though it can’t be assumed the EU will agree to it). It seems to include offering agreement to take some asylum seekers from the EU, via managed routes, in exchange for EU agreement to accept returns of those arriving in the UK by irregular routes. But the government reaction to this more, well, pragmatic proposal was to denounce it as surrendering control to Brussels and making Britain a “dumping ground” for “illegal migrants” (sic), whilst the Brexit Blob went into predictable hysteria.

This serves to illustrate the continuing dishonesty – as well as the stupidity – that surrounds Brexit, which precludes a realistic post-Brexit strategy. Rather than accept the reality of being a supplicant to the EU, the Brexiters either expect to be gifted what they want, and denounce the EU as malevolent for not doing so, or, if some deal is made or even proposed, they denounce it as ‘surrender’ and betrayal of Brexit. They certainly haven’t grasped that being outside the EU means less, not more, control, something which will be shown again in this policy area if, as a report this week suggests, the UK is about to sign a deal to access the EU Border Agency, Frontex. Such ‘opt-ins’, for all that they may be desirable to both the UK and the EU, are invariably different in character from full membership, and invariably shaped by the fact that it is the UK ‘joining in with’ an EU programme or initiative rather than vice versa.

Something similar applies to the last of this summer’s main Brexit stories, with the UK finally, and belatedly, agreeing terms to re-join the Horizon Europe programme. Again this is widely seen by sensible commentators as a sign of an emerging pragmatism. Yet, as with the other examples, there is little honesty from the government about what that pragmatism means. In particular, not only has the UK’s absence from the scheme in itself done significant damage to British science, but the new associate membership, which operates without freedom of movement of people which does so much to promote easy and flexible cooperation, is inferior to what we had before.

So this is a recurring theme. When particular instances of the damage of Brexit become undeniable, the government sometimes seeks to patch them with some kind of solution, be it a delay, quiet alignment, or cooperation, but there is no honesty about the fact that the ‘solution’ is rarely as good as what has been lost, or, even if it is, that the very need for ‘solutions’ demonstrates that Brexit is the cause of so many problems, and that all the effort used to create such solutions is itself a cost of Brexit.

At the same time, even these sub-optimal solutions come in the teeth of Brexiter opposition with, in the case of Horizon, the Telegraph’s Matthew Lynn (£) sneering at all the scientists and industrialists relieved that there has been at least a fix of sorts, on the grounds that they apparently don’t recognize that “Europe is finished” and is a “failing bloc”. But whatever Brexiters may want to think, the UK wanted and badly needed Horizon, and for all that they continue to rail against the implementation of the Windsor Framework they refuse to see that it was only that agreement that unlocked the possibility of being in the Horizon scheme. In this sense, the EU’s refusal to agree Horizon terms until the Northern Ireland Protocol row was settled was an effective negotiating lever.

Yet a quite astonishingly ignorant Telegraph editorial (£) insisted that the delay over Horizon showed the EU to be irrational and self-harming and that, far from being a supplicant, the UK’s participation was needed to prevent the EU becoming a “scientific backwater”. Indeed, the article suggests, it was a clear case of ‘them needing us more than we need them’ whilst the Express reported it as the EU “backing down”. But even here there is no consistent logic, with still other Brexiters, such as David Frost, warning that the UK will be ‘held hostage’ by Horizon membership.

And this, too, is a recurring theme. Endless claims that the EU is failing, that it ‘needs us more than we need them’, but that, paradoxically, it is able to punish and hold hostage the UK are amongst many examples of how the Brexiters have learned literally nothing from the last seven years. Indeed, now they are making ever more strident calls for a ‘Brexit 2.0’ of leaving the ECHR. That may come to nothing, but the vociferousness of the demand, and its reach well into the higher ranks of the cabinet, is an important sign that the madness of Brexitism is alive and kicking, despite the failure of Brexit. This enduring madness sustains the tension, which has existed in various forms throughout the entire Brexit process, between the practical realities of what Brexit means and the implacable demands and fantasies of Brexiters within and outside government.

Brexiters’ continued denial

One sign of this is the way that, even now, the Brexit Ultras continue to claim that Brexit has had no adverse effects on trade and the economy generally, or even that its effects have been positive. This summer seems to have seen an upsurge in such attempts, in ways which are as brazenly dishonest as they are desperate. These attempts have shown all the now familiar tricks, including cherry-picking particular data points (especially relating to the pandemic), citing trade figures without adjustment for inflation, or making comparisons between the UK and the EU (or individual members) rather than between the UK when an EU member and when not.

The latter of these, something to which anti-Brexit commentators are also sometimes prone, is especially misleading because, of course, whether or not a member of the EU, the UK economy is often, if not always, better or worse performing than the EU average, or the Eurozone, or individual EU members (Germany being a currently popular comparator). To see how asinine such comparisons are, consider whether, when the UK was a member of the EU, Brexiters would have argued that the relative performance of the UK and the EU had any implications for the case for belonging to or leaving the EU. Undoubtedly, they would (and probably did) say that if the UK was performing better than the EU it ‘proved’ we did not need to be a member, and were held back by being ‘shackled’ to the EU; but if the EU was performing better than the UK it ‘proved’ we should not be a member as the EU was ‘rigged’ to our disadvantage.

But even comparing the UK during and after membership is not really sufficient. What is necessary is to estimate the ‘counterfactual’ of how the UK would have performed had it remained a member of the EU compared with how it has in fact performed since leaving, the OBR’s being the best-known and most authoritative example. Such estimates are difficult to make, and bound to be imperfect, but although the Brexiters are happy to dismiss all such estimates (£) they fail to provide a convincing one of their own. Instead, they frequently simply assert that Brexit has had a beneficial effect, effectively positing an implicit and indefensible counterfactual, especially by pointing to increases in the nominal value of trade (ignoring inflation, as well as things like unusual energy trade fluctuations, changes in statistical methodology etc.).

The endless and varied kinds of chicanery used to make these assertions has the effect, no doubt intended, of making it exhausting to debunk each individual example. But, even without doing so, it is easy to demonstrate their hollowness. For, crucially, no Brexiter is able to explain how Brexit could conceivably be responsible for increasing trade or economic growth, or how even sustaining their levels could be because of, rather than despite, Brexit. It has increased trade barriers with the EU, and, even if the much-vaunted new trade deals are going to have much value (they won’t), it is far too early for them to have had any impact, as those with Australia and New Zealand only came into force at the end of May, whilst CPTPP membership has yet to begin. Nor can any supposed Brexit boost have come from deregulation since, as noted above, and as Brexiters themselves constantly and vociferously complain, there has been almost no regulatory divergence.

So there is no reason in principle why Brexit could have a positive, or even neutral, effect on trade or the economy generally. Moreover, the claim that it does so flies in the face of what businesses themselves say. Even in the fanatical pages of the Express, an article headlining business backing for Brexit and hostility to any idea of re-joining was replete with examples of businesses saying the exact opposite, primarily because of the ‘red tape’ barriers to trade that Brexit has created. By contrast, there are no examples of businesses for whom trade with the EU has become easier as a result of Brexit. The latter is important, because Brexit was supposed to have a positive effect, not just ‘to not to be (too) negative’. This point is also relevant to the wholly bogus way that Brexiters treat any post-Brexit good news - such as this week’s announcement of BMW’s investment in the Mini plant – as if it were somehow attributable to Brexit. Again, the question is: what investments, if any, have been made that would not have happened without Brexit, and how do they compare with those investments which would have been made, but for Brexit?

So what happens now?

The consequence of the continuing power of this invincible stupidity is a kind of political drift. Where the economic or political costs are high enough, and those affected lobby strongly enough, we see the government seeking accommodations of various sorts to mitigate or minimise some of them, but in cases where the immediate costs are not too high, such as its dismissal this summer of the EU’s offer of formal ‘strategic dialogue’ (£), we see the government pandering to the Brexit Ultras.

This is why the government’s supposed ‘pragmatism’ over this summer only consists of ad hoc, sub-optimal fixes, which may slightly reduce the damage of Brexit in a few policy areas but are constrained by the ongoing ‘conspiracy of silence’ which prevents honesty about the reality even of those fixes, let alone about the abject failure of Brexit across every single policy area. That silence is shared by the Tory and Labour Parties, and it comes from the fear both have of the unquenchable and unreasoning fury of the Brexit Ultras, a fury so hair-triggered that it is provoked even by the waving of EU flags at the Last Night of the Proms. I don’t think we will see an end to the power of the Ultras at least until a few of the high-profile ones publicly admit that Brexit, in principle and not just in delivery, was a catastrophic error.

Even so, it is possible that a Labour government might be able to fashion ‘pragmatism’ into a more coherent strategy, to the extent that it might pursue closer ties with the EU across all policy areas (it will in any case inherit, perhaps by Tory design, some of the present government’s delayed or deferred implementations, such as import controls). At least such a government would not have the dead-weight of Brexit Ultra MPs that makes this impossible for the Tories, and although it would still face the massed ranks of the pro-Brexit media – a taste of which we saw with this week’s furore over its asylum plans - it might, when in power, be more able to resist or ignore their attacks. However, there is little sign that Labour will be any more honest about the costs and limitations of such an approach, since to do so would open up the obvious question of why that approach was not bolder.

Yesterday saw the publication of the revised edition of my book Brexit Unfolded. How No One Got What They Wanted (and why they were never going to). When the first edition was published, in 2021, the sub-title was perhaps provocative. Now, it is almost a truism, whilst also being a taboo for the main parties. The new edition tells the story of what happened from the end of the transition period up to last June, and concludes that the situation is that “now they can’t agree what to do about it”, creating, at least for now, a political – and national – impasse.

So what happens now? Seven years ago, I returned from holiday and wrote the first post on this blog. It finished with the words “it is this strange new landscape that I will comment on in the months and years to come”, but I did not really anticipate that I would do so for so many years as I have, and certainly didn’t anticipate that the blog would receive the attention it has (for which, as always, I am grateful). The landscape now is just as strange, if not even stranger, although in some ways depressingly unchanged. Entering the eighth year of blogging, I will continue to try to record and analyse it.