The government has announced, with feigned enthusiasm and disingenuity, two Brexit benefits – champagne can now be sold in pint measures and a financial services deal with Switzerland. In both cases the beneficiaries are the wealthy, though I doubt those who quaff champagne will switch to the new measure in the unlikely event that the French will acquiesce, and had the UK remained a member of the EU it would have enjoyed a similar financial ‘equivalence’ deal with Switzerland. More likely, the main reason for such inconsequential announcements was to distract the dwindling number of Leavers who still believe Brexit was worthwhile, from the quiet announcement that legislating would not now be introduced to expand the use of imperial measures in the UK. The decision to drop the idea, previously hailed by the anachronistic and incorrigible Jacob Rees-Mogg as a ‘Brexit freedom’, came after a survey showed that only 1.3 per cent of British businesses and consumers wanted to see a bigger role for imperial units.
In shambolic retreat regarding the benefits of Brexit, the coming year does not bode well for the government. It faces humiliation at the polls from voters increasingly apprised of their lack of integrity and competence as well as the economic consequences of its disastrous policies of which Brexit is the standout example. According to the Nuffield Foundation the toxic combination of low growth and increasing inequality has left the UK trailing behind comparable EU economies e.g., France, Germany, and the Netherlands, with injurious consequences for low- and middle-income households. Hardly surprising therefore that ‘Brexit regret’ is taking hold in British households and in the media. Surveys report that Leave voters feel they did not have enough information to make an informed decision and given the chance a majority say they would now vote remain.
To take but one example. Prior to the referendum it was claimed a majority of British farmers supported Brexit. But according to Minette Batters, the NFU’s departing President, Brexit has failed to improve on the old EU system and large landowners are still benefiting disproportionately. It is evident that public opinion has shifted powerfully against Brexit and beyond peradventure that if voters had known in 2016 what they know today a majority would have voted to remain. In a democracy this should surely raise the question – at least for politicians who put welfare ahead of ideology – as to whether the time is ripe to give the electorate the opportunity to change its mind. It was none other than the arch-Brexiter, David Davis who said ‘countries which cannot change their minds cease to be democracies’.
As we head into an election year it is inevitable that the government does not want Brexit to feature in the coming campaign, but Keir Starmer’s attempts to avoid the issue are more puzzling. Some have opined that Labour fears – despite the polling evidence – inflaming Leave voters in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies by suggesting Brexit is a costly mistake. I doubt this. Stephen Fry hit the nail on the head when he assertively told Laura Kuenssberg that Brexit ‘was a catastrophe, and everybody knows it deep in their bones.’ Perhaps, the real concern for Starmer is that a Labour manifesto that included rejoining would raise many questions to which he would not have answers, not least whether the EU would be prepared to play ball. It would certainly infuriate the Brexit backing billionaire owners of the right-wing media who would double down on once again stoking divisiveness. It would also distract from Labour’s other policies.
That said, were Labour bold enough to raise rejoining, it would go some way to restoring the damage the scurrilous Leave campaign did for the reputation of the UK’s democracy. In any event as PM Starmer will not be able to avoid the issue as he has put economic growth at the heart of a Labour government’s priorities. Once the excitement of a new government has subsided the escalating disaster of Brexit will become increasingly evident. Those who put facts before fantasies know that Brexit is not a one-off hit to the economy, its enduring adverse consequences for trade and business investment will ensure that average living standards in the UK continue to decline relative to those in the EU. Ironically, it was Stamer who pointed out that per capita incomes in the UK could fall behind Poland by the end of the decade.
I suspect that Starmer’s close advisers know that outside the single market and customs union, sustained, meaningful economic growth is for the birds. In principle, the UK could apply for membership of these institutions without becoming a full-blown member, but openly settling for the inferior role of rule taker – in effect the UK has never relinquished this status – seems to me to be politically infeasible. Hence, rejoining is the only practical option for avoiding continued decline and it falls to political leaders to start saying so. Far from the regulation lite, low tax nirvana promised by Brexiters, businesses are buckling under the expansion of customs and regulatory form filling while foreign investors are diverting their funds to their EU competitors.
Rejoining the EU would be a challenge. The EU would want to be assured that another Brexit would be a vanishingly small probability, there would be no question of restoring the opt outs or rebates, and as a new member the UK would have to commit to joining the eurozone at an appropriate date. Some view the further integration of the EU post-Brexit as an obstacle, but the €800bn of common borrowing for investment in high-tech and green technologies available to members under the ‘Next Generation EU’ projects should be an enormous attraction to cash-strapped Britain. Beyond economics, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing influence of China reinforce the need for European cooperation. And what if – God help us – Trump is restored to the Presidency and in cosying up to Putin withdraws the US from Nato and turns America inwards to isolationism.