In our occasional “Bremainers Ask Revisited” feature, we ask former contributors to comment on the current state of play, and Brexit in particular.
This time we asked Marina Purkiss (Jeremy Kyle Show/Bylines/Trawl Podcast), Professor Anand Menon (Director, UK in a Changing Europe) and Peter Corr (National Rejoin March) to comment on the first six months of 2023 and what might happen next.
The first half of 2023 has been surprisingly worse than I expected. It feels like we’re in a position now where the Conservatives can see from the polls that there is no appetite for them anymore. People no longer want a Conservative government. They’ve had enough and they want change.
As a result of that, certainly in this first half of the year and, scarily, probably into the second half (and until they’re out of power), I think that what we are now seeing is a smash and grab; a raid on the public purse. There is no care, no consideration. They are breaking convention, they are breaching rules of conduct, they are not correcting Hansard. They are chucking out contracts left, right and centre, and any prospect of Sunak being the champion of integrity and professionalism and accountability that he promised he would be has gone out of the window. It’s dire.
In terms of the Brexit effect, I think the one promising thing is that polls show that there is no longer an appetite for Brexit. Even Leave voters are seeing the error of their ways. In fact, the latest YouGov poll released this week (i.e. the Government’s own polling) shows that if another referendum were held tomorrow, a majority of people (55%) would vote to Rejoin. So that’s one glimmer of hope.
The sad thing is that not one of the main opposition parties feel they can openly campaign to rejoin. In fact, we’re in the crazy situation where we have got Tories talking about it more than Labour are. Labour have chosen to adopt this make Brexit work stance. It’s frustrating as hell, but I get it. Consider that despite Labour being so absolute, so final in their language and saying they will not rejoin – and yes still the Tories and their right-wing shills are telling all and sundry that Keir Starmer will take us back into the EU. So I understand why Starmer is having to play it this way – otherwise the next election becomes a de facto referendum on rejoining the EU. But nevertheless, it’s a sad indictment on the state of our politics and the press in this country.
However, it is very frustrating that the people who are now starting to talk about Rejoining, or the even the problems of Brexit, seems to be more in the Tory camp. Tobias Elwood has actually come out and talked openly about it. Even the former austerity Chancellor, George Osborne, has talked about the error that this country made in leaving the European Union and the problems that it caused. It was reported just today that Brexit is like a slow puncture for the UK. Don’t we know it…
Rishi Sunak meanwhile, has not stopped bleating on about those five pledges, the key one being to bring down inflation. Yet, what really, really gets to me, and I’m sure many of your readers, is that he talks about how he will do everything within his power to tackle inflationary pressures. And yet the one thing that is in their power, that really does impact inflation, is Brexit. And they will not talk about it, and they will not recognise or acknowledge the impact this is having and will continue to have on our inflation. Add to that, how we are sleepwalking into further inflation-fuelled misery because, as of the autumn, full Brexit checks are due to come into play. Yes, folks, we haven’t even had full Brexit yet! We’ve not even enjoyed the full benefits of unleashing the opportunities of Brexit! These forthcoming Brexit checks are the ones that, if you recall, Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to as an act of self-harm. Yep, those checks. And there is wide speculation and fear that this will only drive food inflation in one direction, upwards.
So how are things looking? Pretty grim. But the things that are looking good are the polls: polls to rejoin the EU, and polls showing that the Tories are hopefully going to get obliterated at the next election. There’s a long way to go, and even if Labour or a coalition government do get into power, we can’t guarantee that they’re going to change their stance and bow to pressures from the public to rejoin. But, very slowly, as a result of the increasing damage, we are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope we emerge from that tunnel sooner rather than later.
Read Marina’s earlier contribution to Bremainers Ask (November 2022)
Professor Anand Menon
The year Brexit was betrayed. Or, for those of the opposite persuasion, the year Brexit was definitively shown to have failed. As so often, the debate has been dominated by the extremes. And as so often, reality is somewhat different. It may transpire that 2023 was the year we learned – grudgingly – to live with Brexit.
For zealots on the Leave side, betrayal has come in several stages. The Windsor Framework left Northern Ireland marooned, subject to EU laws. Kemi Badenoch’s watered-down EU retained law bill promised the scrapping of only a fifth of the EU laws originally destined for Rishi Sunak’s shredder. By May, Nigel Farage himself was on our telly screens declaring that Brexit had ‘failed’.
So, what does all this mean? In truth, not much. For all the noises off as Ministers compromised with reality – finding a modus vivendi with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol and avoiding the regulatory chaos that would have accompanied a wholescale scrapping of EU law – the Government was simply finding ways to, as the saying goes, ‘make Brexit work’. And the pushback was notable for its tameness. The days when the ERG tail could wag the Tory dog are, it seems, over.
All the while, Remainers have felt emboldened by a raft of economic data – on growth, on trade, and on investment – suggesting that Brexit has had a negative impact on the UK economy. They have become increasingly strident in their criticism of the decision to leave the EU (and increasingly prone to irrationally blame Brexit for everything that is going wrong).
And Remainers have been able to point to opinion polls showing a larger proportion than ever of the British public now believe that to have been the ‘wrong decision’.
However, prospects for a reconsideration of Brexit, seem remote at best. For one thing, there is simply no political appetite for it. Labour have ruled out rejoining the single market or customs union, proposing what amount to potentially helpful but largely cosmetic changes to current trading arrangements (though there is no guarantee the EU will be willing to grant these). As far as Keir Starmer is concerned, as long as the Liberal Democrats do not adopt a more aggressively anti-Brexit stance, there will be little political cost to this position.
As for the public, while increasing numbers of people feel Brexit has not been a success, we should be careful not to read too much into this.
Unhappiness with Brexit is not the same as a desire to relitigate it. We have seen the issue drop steadily down the IPSOS issues tracker over time – last month only 9% of the public felt Brexit was the most important issue confronting the country. As my colleague Sophie Stowers has pointed out, when asked about re-opening the Brexit question, a large portion of the population (44%) consider the issue of EU membership to be settled. This could, as she says, ‘suggest that the popularity of ‘rejoin’ in a hypothetical referendum should not be interpreted as support for another vote’.
Furthermore, many of the Leavers who think the economic implications have been negative believe this is because politicians have implemented Brexit badly, not because it could not have been done well.
And finally, to perhaps the greatest unknown. What happens when the economy picks up? If, as seems to be the case, people are now blaming Brexit for economic outcomes that are clearly not the result of our leaving the EU, would an economic upturn lead to Brexit being credited for positive outcomes on which it has had equally little impact? How stable, in other words, is the current dissatisfaction?
The answer to this is we simply don’t know. But there is nothing inevitable about a steady rise in dissatisfaction with Brexit, let alone in political pressure for a change of course.
And so here we are. Grumpy, and generally quite dissatisfied with Brexit. But not really prepared to go over all that again. This might just be the new normal.
Read Professor Menon’s earlier contribution to Bremainers Ask (April 2023)
The highs and lows of the last six months? Well, there are no highs, are there? So that’s that part covered. Pessimistic? No, just the truth. And I don’t believe anybody thinks otherwise, no matter what party you support, whether on the left or the right.
Maybe the polling will give some hope, if you want to see the destruction of the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party sweep into power. Though we’re still possibly a way off from an election and only a couple of years ago, pundits were saying Labour were gone for a decade because of the defeat they suffered in 2019. I think those people may be being very optimistic if they think the Conservative Party, who will say and do anything for power, couldn’t achieve the same turnaround in 18 months.
Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis is the biggest issue affecting most normal people’s lives. It is the cost of everything, from the clothes you wear, to the food you eat. There are, of course, world factors outside British politics causing this. But the big elephant in the room that is Brexit is also adding to it, making inflation worse than it would have been if we were still in the EU. Depending on which economist you listen to, Brexit is responsible for 40-80% of UK inflation.
It started at 10.5% in January and stayed stubbornly up there until May when it came down slightly to 8.7%. Sunak’s pledge to “halve inflation” by the end of the year is looking pretty unlikely, I would say, even though we all know if it’s achieved it’ll actually have nothing to do with him. Besides, I don’t know about you, but when I’m buying something, inflation is way above the official figures stated and certainly doesn’t seem to be coming down. Our weekly shop is nearly 40% higher than a year ago!
While this is happening, the Government and Bank of England are arguing the toss about what to do about it, seemingly settling on just making it even harder by putting up interest rates, meaning higher mortgage costs and in turn higher rent costs for people living in private rented housing. That’s around 82% of houses in the UK affected. This, to me, screams out that we need a huge building effort of social housing in this country to try and counter this upcoming crisis. Though there isn’t any party currently even thinking about this, as far as I can see.
Sunak is trying to get everyone to ignore the Brexit elephant though and concentrate on other reasons for the inflation, such as the industrial action the country has seen this year already. Striking over pay, conditions and rights, everyone has been on strike in the first six months. Amazon warehouse workers, firefighters, teachers, civil servants, border force workers, university lecturers, security guards, train drivers, ambulance workers, nurses, junior doctors, tube drivers, train station workers – there aren’t many industries that haven’t seen industrial action this year! But despite all this, the Government just uses these hard-working people as political pawns in their game of divide and rule.
Another thing he’s getting us to look at, instead of the Brexit elephant, is the sad and needless war in Ukraine. We’ve seen two visits to the UK by Volodymyr Zelenskyy this year already, showing the country what a real politician looks and sounds like, one who actually stands up for his people and country, rather than doing everything he can to wreck it. I am quite proud that our country is helping Ukraine against the tyrant Putin, though. 140,000 Ukrainian refugees have found refuge in the country, and that’s the Britain I fought for whilst serving.
I didn’t serve for a country, however, who would turn away people fleeing their own countries for various distressing reasons. The whole culture war, culminating in this ‘Stop The Boats’ rhetoric, taken up by both main parties now, sickens me. Imagine being so distressed in your own country that you risk your life and your family’s lives travelling the world with the aim of coming to a UK that speaks a language you understand, or where you might have a long-lost brother, only to be treated like a criminal when you get there – then packed away on a plane to a ‘safe’ country like Rwanda where you know other refugees were shot while demonstrating against conditions there. I don’t believe anyone but the nastiest of people are truly happy that we’re doing that to these people.
And I’ve not even really talked about the political scandals within our Vote Leave Government, have I? From Andrew Bridgen being expelled from the party for comparing COVID vaccines to the holocaust, Nadhim Zahawi being sacked over his tax affairs, Lee Anderson declaring his support for capital punishment (I assume, for anyone who criticises the Conservative Party), Robert Jenrick and Braverman getting into trouble over speeding offences, Dominic Raab resigning for being a bully, Richard Sharp resigning as BBC Chair after being found to have secured Johnson a loan just before he was chosen, Johnson himself resigning as an MP after being found to have lied multiple times to Parliament and the country (who’d have thought it), Nadine Dorries announcing she’s resigning, then not resigning, Daniel Korski withdrawing from being Tory candidate for London Mayor after accusations of groping: barely a week has gone by in the first six months of 2023 without another Tory scandal emerging! The party really are a car crash at the moment, perfectly summed up by that guy who crashed his car directly into the gates of Parliament last month.
I’ll finish by correcting my initial thought – I’ve thought of a positive thing to come out of British politics this year. It was Sunak coming out in support of the Rejoin EU campaign, when he declared to Northern Ireland, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, that, and I swear to God I quote, ahem… “You are the world’s most exciting economic zone – in a unique position of having access to the UK market and EU single market. Nobody else has that. No-one”. As you can imagine, the country as a whole did a huge collective facepalm. I look forward to the next six months in British politics. Not.
Next month – Professor Michaela Benson
Michaela is a sociologist with expertise in migration, citizenship and identity. She is particularly known for her research on lifestyle migration, the middle classes, and Britain’s relationship to its emigrants and overseas citizens at moments of major political transformation, including Brexit. Her research projects include Brexit and British citizens in the EU and Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN).