Larry Elliot is right, ‘Brexit is a dead issue at Westminster’. It has happened. The UK is no longer a member state of the EU. Despite millions of Leave voters having a different idea of what leaving would mean, we have left and politicians are understandably nervous about revisiting this toxic chapter in UK political history.
Where he loses me is almost everything written after these opening seven words, a piece which explains why Brexit has not been a disaster and argues that politicians should ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.
While making no mention of new trade deals that will undercut British farmers, the plight of British musicians, political stasis in Northern Ireland or the myriad of other issues sparked by the UK’s departure from the bloc, some of the ‘proof’ offered by Mr Elliot on his thesis is questionable. Let’s pick over some of the highlights.
1. The worst predictions didn't come true
'The doomsday scenario – crashing house prices (falls of up to 18% could result, warned then chancellor George Osborne) and mass unemployment – never happened.'
As with almost all assertions of, “Britain didn’t fall into the sea” there is no acknowledgment that Brexit was supposed to be good, or of the massive intervention from the Bank of England to prevent ‘Doomsday’.
While no beneficial predictions materialised, a lot of other negative ones did. Everything from the loss of billions in regional development funds and the reintroduction of roaming charges, to the devaluation of the pound and increased cost of food. Importantly, the type of things people feel much more tangibly than the lines on an ONS chart of economic growth.
I also prefer not to quote people who via austerity fertilised the ground for a Leave vote, and then made these kinds of claims when they realised the scale of their error.
2. Proper Brexit has never been tried
'Brexit provided opportunities to do things differently but those opportunities have so far not been exploited'
Those that claim there are Brexit opportunities rarely go into detail about what they are. If they do, they almost never explain the trade offs in realising them i.e. cutting standards and protections.
3. Flop gear
'there have been signs of the economy adjusting. Nissan’s decision to invest more than £1bn in its Sunderland plant with the intention of building three new electric car models is an example of that.’
Does this figure include the taxpayer funded incentives? And what about the other car companies still building in the UK (to name just one industry)? Ford and BMW have both downsized and Honda left entirely, closing their Swindon plant at the cost of 3,000 jobs. Jaguar Land Rover recently announced they would invest to create 4,000 jobs but that’s after they shed 6,000 since Brexit and again after an offer of £500m in subsidies from the Government.
4. The backbone of the British economy
'It is a lot easier for a giant Japanese car company to make the Brexit transition than it is for a small food and drink exporting company faced with loads more red tape.'
This passing mention of the huge challenges the Brexit deal continues to cause for SMEs detailed in almost three years of evidence gathered by the UK Trade and Business Commission is extremely dismissive. SMEs employ 61% of working people in the UK and the Brexit deal has lost income and increased costs for many. It has cost jobs in some sectors and created labour shortages in others. It has caused businesses to move overseas and some to close their shutters for good.
5. Specious reasoning
'Brexit Britain has recovered more strongly than either France or Germany from the pandemic.'
What exactly did the UK do differently during the pandemic that it couldn't as a member state of the EU that allowed us to outpace France and Germany? Our performance would probably have been stronger without the added economic drag of Brexit and numerous studies and projections say the same including the OBR who say the economy is 4% smaller because of Brexit.
6. The worst of both worlds
‘Fifteen years ago, the US and EU economies were of a similar size; today America’s is a third bigger.’
Great, so we now have unfavourable trading arrangements with both the EU and the US. The government has all but conceded that a US trade deal is off the table leaving the Trade Secretary to unconvincingly pretend that non-binding handshake arrangements with individual US states are an effective substitute.
7. Right and wrong
'One result has been the rise of aggressively rightwing politics...Britain is one of the relatively few European countries to buck this trend.'
Really? Concisely summarised by Jonty Bloom in his own response to Mr Elliot, that far from bucking the trend, the UK’s aggressive right wingers have been in government for at least the last 7 years, embracing the nativist ideology and following the lead of Nigel Farage, and all with a minority of votes.
At least in Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands rightwing forces are kept in check by proportional electoral systems forcing them to work with other parties. In Britain, the Tories wield almost total legislative and executive power and have done their best to clamp down on any opposition they face in the streets, in the courts and at the ballot box.
8. Keir blue water
'Keir Starmer is broadly offering continuity Sunak'
One of many differences between the two men going into the next election is that Starmer acknowledges the damage of the Tories’ shambolic Brexit deal and has repeatedly committed to improving it. His shadow cabinet have also echoed recommendations made by the UK Trade and Business Commission as ways to improve trading conditions for British businesses.
For their part, the EU have proven themselves flexible in improving cooperation and open to new arrangements such as a Youth Mobility Scheme. Just don’t call it renegotiation!
Highlighting these discrepancies is not me trying to have a go, be a pedant or even attempting to set the record straight. Consistent polling shows most people believe Brexit was a mistake and has been a disaster. A valiant 7 year effort by the right-wing media outlets which dominate the agenda has not shifted this opinion and we shouldn’t expect Larry’s piece will either. No, what most needs to be challenged is the attitude it represents.
In his conclusion Larry asserts that ‘rejoiners face a long battle’, perhaps the only other thing we agree on. I would have the UK rejoin the EU tomorrow if that were possible but not only do we need to convince politicians and the British public, the EU will take some persuading after all they were put through. Meanwhile the status quo detailed above is causing massive economic, cultural, political and societal damage to the UK, the extent of which we will probably never fully appreciate.
Yes, ‘Brexit is a dead issue’ but addressing the harm that the government's shambolic deal continues to inflict must not become one. Improving our situation does not start at rejoin and arguing it cannot or should not be done is almost as negligent as the decision to hold a referendum in the first place.
Niall McGourty is Director of Communications at Best for Britain