Brexit silence undermines democracy


by Sean Rickard

To general surprise Rishi Sunak exercised his prerogative and announced a general election for the 4th July.   Few people, including Tory MPs expected the announcement, given his failure to make any impact on Labours 20 per cent opinion poll lead, and the Tory drubbing in the recent Council elections.   Just why Sunak decided that now was the time to go to country must be a matter for speculation, ranging from punishing recalcitrant MPs to the fear that the economic outlook is set to worsen.   One thing is clear, the decision had little to do with providing the opportunity for authentic deliberation, particularly with regard to the economic outlook.   The Tory and Labour leaders know that the biggest obstacle to generating the economic growth they both agree is essential for improving living standards and public services is Brexit, but neither will raise the issue.

In a blatant example of egregious hypocrisy and perfidy, Sunak declared when promoting the Windsor Framework, that Northern Ireland was in the ‘unbelievably special position, the unique position in the entire world in having privileged access not just to the UK home market but also the European Union single market’ – as was the case for the entire country before the Brexit.   Prior to the 2019 general election, Keir Starmer argued that Labour was the party of remain and called for unity ahead of a cross-party meeting to discuss tactics to prevent a no-deal Brexit.   Further, opinion polls show clear majorities of respondents think Brexit was a mistake, and one of the prime culprits, the appalling Nigel Farage now admits that ‘Brexit has failed’.  

Against this background in a mature democracy, discussion and debate about Brexit should be axiomatic.   If Brexit was regarded as a success, it would be front and centre of the Tory campaign, the fact that the word Brexit has not been uttered by Sunak or any of his MPs speaks volumes.   All the more frustrating that Starmer has also chosen to remain silent on the issue.   Labour seems terrified of seizing the opportunity of levelling with voters on the costs of Brexit, presumably in the belief that people do not like being reminded of past mistakes.   To the shame of political heavyweights, only Michael Heseltine has so far been prepared to speak-up.   Writing in the Independent, he warned that the refusal of both main parties to debate the consequences of Brexit will make the election campaign the ‘most dishonest in modern times.’   Lord Heseltine went on to point out that the state of the economy, defence and environment, the need to level up our society, control immigration and restore Britain’s standing in the world are issues that cannot be honestly addressed in isolation from our relationship with Europe.   

This election campaign lacunae has attracted the attention of Sir Mike Rake, former chair of BT Group, KPMG and EasyJet, who told the FT’s City Network – a forum of senior executives and policymakers – that Brexit had been ‘the single biggest act of economic and reputational self-harm in our modern history, compounded by an ideologically driven exit treaty which continues to damage our economy with increasing and unnecessary frictional trade and regulatory costs.’   He argued that the next parliament i.e., a Labour government, ‘must face reality and move closer to the EU from an economic and political perspective, including reconsideration of joining the customs union and single market.’   Significantly, he argued that this would be the single most important step to restoring the UK’s reputation and influence, trade growth and investability as a country.  

Two fellow presenters echoed Sir Mike’s concerns regarding the growing business costs of Brexit.   Andreas Utermann, former head of Allianz Global Investors, pointed out that while Sunak had reduced friction with Europe, he had failed to demonstrate any tangible benefit of Brexit.   Similarly, Shevaun Haviland, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, pointed out that rather than matters getting easier for businesses, the problems just kept coming and a better trading relationship with the EU was urgently needed.   A majority BCC members selling to the EU report that matters have become harder during 2023 and imminent border checks on plant and animal products will impose punitive new costs, particularly on small firms.  

As the damage being caused by Brexit is mounting visibly by the day it is not hard to appreciate why the Tories ahead of the general election do not want to focus on Brexit but Labour’s silence on the costs is inexplicable.   Central to Labour’s manifesto is the achievement of a restoration of the rate of economic growth to its pre-2010 values, yet it must be as clear to Starmer and his team, as it is to business leaders, that this will never be achieved as long as the UK remains outside the single market and customs union i.e., in reality outside the EU.   We now know the notion of a Brexit dividend was a fantasy, but there are strong grounds for believing a commitment to reversing Brexit could deliver several dividends including the business investment and trade advancement so vital for economic growth.  

Put another way outside the EU an incoming Labour government can only deliver the austerity mark two, already pencilled in by the Tories.   In contrast, a Labour party coming into office with a credible promise to join the single market and customs union, would be able to base their tax and spending plans with OBR approval on a significantly larger economy, potentially £100bn a year.   Of course, the EU would be unlikely to consider such an application without strong evidence of overwhelming support amongst voters, hence the importance of raising the issue before the election.   To those around Starmer who say it will be years before we can rejoin, they need to carefully weigh the impediment to their growth aspirations of an increasingly damaging Brexit.   In short, Labour’s silence on the benefits of rejoining is a mistake.   Hammering home the mounting costs of the Tory Brexit can only be beneficial to Labour’s and the country’s prospects.


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