Yet another erstwhile Brexiter MP, Nadine Dorries, leaves the stage in a shameful and shambolic manner of her making. Whether or not the discomfort of post-Brexit reality not aligning with the fantasy encouraged Ms Dorries, the government’s response to this conflict has now descended to cognitive dissonance. Asked, on the BBC Today Programme to respond to the evidence that Brexit has hit the economy harder than Covid, John Glen, chief secretary to the Treasury, did not deny it but stated, ‘the country made a decision on Brexit years ago and the country wants us to address the situation that we face now.’ Leaving aside this pathetic attempt to shift responsibility to the voters, the government is hoist by its Brexit petard. One reality that Mr Glen’s government will soon have to confront is the steadily growing numbers who believe they were misled over Brexit and now believe it was wrong to vote to leave the EU.
Those of us who base our opinions on facts rather than fantasises are clear, Brexit is now the UK’s greatest obstacle to growth, improving public services and rising living standards. Mr Glen, and presumably many in the government, know this truth but we can be certain considered discussion of Brexit will not be aired at the coming political conferences. The Tories will crow about ‘getting Brexit done’ and urge the country to move on. Labour – despite the views of most party members – will seek to avoid the B-word but if forced will resort to the absurd mantra, ‘make Brexit work.’ The zealots’ Brexit fantasy of a low tax, small government economy may have dissipated with the Truss-Kwarteng debacle, but the tyranny of Brexit continues its stranglehold on Sunak’s government despite the evidence that the hard-Brexit it campaigned on is fundamentally unworkable.
As reality clashes with fantasy, the government is progressively postponing or abandoning its Brexit ‘victories.’ For the fifth time, it has postponed putting in place a customs regime for EU imports. This has the benefit that there will be one less factor driving up food prices in the coming months but outside the single market the failure to check imports is a potential public health risk. Furtively, the government slipped out the news that it has abandoned the introduction of a UK product safety mark; a policy that owed more to flag waving than logic. In reality Britain could neither lower its standards below those of the EU nor could it raise them without further, serious damage to trade. The government’s sneaky announcement avoided the need for a minister to announce that the European CE mark, recognised worldwide as a gold standard, is once again Britain’s standard. That said, there was no apology to businesses for the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent preparing for the mandatory introduction of a UK standard.
Far from taking back control, the UK has now become a rule-taker rather than a fellow rule-maker with a veto. Slowly but surely the government is being dragged to the realisation that when reality collides with a Brexit fantasy, the UK has no alternative but to submit to the EU. We can be confident that having returned to the European CE mark, there will be little if any attempt to revoke any significant retained EU regulations and we will almost certainly fall in line with future regulations affecting trade. The scrapping of the proposed sunset clause in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act, which would have automatically revoked most retained EU law at the end of 2023, signals that divergence is a dead duck. British businesses that want to export to the EU will have to adhere to EU standards and regulations. Moreover, many international businesses will choose not to export to the UK rather than bear the costs of complying with UK regulations which diverge from the EU.
Downgraded to a rule-taker rather than a fellow rule-maker may not be the concern foremost in most people’s minds, but the growing gap between Brexit fantasy and their lived reality most certainly is. The Chancellor has grimly warned that Britain is in a low growth trap. Credible institutions, such as the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, have come to the view that the UK is facing a prolonged period of stagnant productivity, low economic growth, and growing inequality e.g., industrial regions in the Midlands and the North are being disproportionately badly hit. The Brexit supporting Telegraph, with breath taking audacity, now says Britain is a poor country and likely to get even poorer. As the lies about a Brexit nirvana are being laid bare and the on-going costs of Brexit for households continue to mount, our political leaders persist in dissembling but sooner rather than later serious politicians will have to face-up and address the economic mess that is Brexit.
The stance of the government and opposition on Brexit is neither tenable nor moral and it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Opinion polls show that Brexit regret is at an all-time high and the hallmark of a function democracy is the freedom for people having changed their minds to have the opportunity to give it effect in a vote. Post the coming election Mr Starmer will be unable to ignore this reality. The UK’s malaise is crying out for an industrial policy with real heft, involving a dedicated long-term strategy to promote not only private investment but also much increased public investment in infrastructures – the UK Infrastructure Bank is underfunded – as well as research, education, and skills institutions. But to be effective these actions must be accompanied, as a minimum, by a return to the single market and customs union assuming prime minister Starmer feels unable to move immediately to full membership of the EU. Such action is needed to show the serious intent necessary to win the confidence of foreign business investment, sadly missing since the disastrous referendum. Brexit has created a divided, fractured society and the next government will make little progress until it recognises this truth.