Lenin once said, “there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.” He didn’t have anything to say about weekends but events in the Brexit story over last weekend have felt as momentous as any of Lenin’s weeks.
The mood has changed
At long last, the UK is waking up to the fact that its post-Brexit reality is as far as it can be from the promises that were made by its proponents. Remember those?
Here, for example, is Daniel Hannan waxing poetic about the rosy future for the country as a consequence of leaving (without any evidence to support his extravagant claims, you notice). And who can forget David Davis MP, who promised there would be “no downsides to Brexit, only considerable upsides”? Thanks to the diligent efforts of Yorkshire Bylines, in the Davis Downside Dossier we can see that over 800 negative consequences of the referendum have been logged to date, compared with just a handful of benefits.
In the mainstream media, acknowledgement of the accumulating damages caused by Brexit has been absent, even though it’s staring increasing numbers of the general public in the face.
In September of this year, polling expert John Curtice acknowledged a change in mood: “54% would now vote to join the EU while only 46% would back staying out. That is quite a turnaround from the position just six months ago”. The audience reaction to former Conservative MP John Selwyn Gummer’s (now Lord Deben) damning judgement of Brexit on Any Questions (11 November) supports the argument that the public mood has changed substantially, while a poll just out shows the 8% margin in favour of rejoining has now grown to 24%.
Something changed last weekend, though. In quick succession, several stories broke which were openly critical of the position the UK is now in as a direct consequence of Brexit. Michael Saunders, former monetary policy committee member at the Bank of England gave an interview to Bloomberg in which he laid the coming recession and the onset of Austerity 2.0 firmly at its door.
On the Sunday politics shows, editor of the Financial Times Roula Khalaf was equally unequivocal, describing the failure to talk honestly and openly about the cost as the “elephant in the room”. Within 24 hours, former cabinet minister and head of Defra, MP George Eustice stated in parliament that the trade deal with Australia – the first post-Brexit deal negotiated from scratch, and for which he was substantially responsible – wasn’t very good and gave away much more than it actually achieved for the UK. The impact on farming was especially bad, as MP Chris Bryant quickly pointed out.
On the same day that Eustice blew huge holes in the government’s integrity and credibility, news broke that the London stock market had lost its preeminent position as the most valuable financial market to Paris.
Meanwhile, MP Grant Shapps announced that the UKCA quality control mark – due to be introduced at the start of 2023 as a replacement for the CE standard and widely touted as a symbol of what the UK could do to assert its independence from the EU – would be shelved for at least another two years, because “ministers now accept it would be a ‘burden for business’”.
This would be scant consolation for award winning cheesemaker Simon Spurrell, who sold his business after losing £600,000 because of the additional red tape imposed on him. Even Jeremy Hunt grudgingly acknowledged things were not working out as intended.
The cork is out of the bottle
So, the Brexit cork is out of the bottle. We must ask what are the likely consequences. Here, some speculation is necessary, although there are clues.
For over six years, Brexit has promised the earth and delivered a handful of dust. As Khalaf says, “[if] there are opportunities in Brexit, we haven’t seen them yet”, suggesting that if some meaningful examples of the tangible benefits of leaving don’t appear rapidly, the political consequences will be severe. As Jeremy Hunt tells the country to prepare for another round of austerity, expect the prevailing attitude of the public to be, “fool me badly once, shame on you. Fool me badly twice, shame on me”.
A second consequence may see a gradual alignment by the UK with the EU in some areas. The UK’s request, which the EU has agreed to, for the UK to be able to join the EU’s military transport scheme, is one example.
Of greater significance is the suspension of the UKCA mark. It means, for the time being at least, a business won’t have to do additional paperwork (essential for exporters), which would add to the red tape Brexiters assured the country could be dispensed with. Why would any business want that? It’s more than possible that this won’t change.
Brexit has also forced both main parties’ backs against the wall. As Chris Grey argues, the Conservatives are in denial about what’s happening. In spite of substantial leads in the opinion polls, Labour is running scared of voters’ judgement on the outcomes too.
Pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens may start getting more traction with voters while the Reform Party could very likely attract disaffected voters from both Conservatives and Labour; and with a general election looming, a third consequence of the referendum may see a significant re-alignment in British politics, not least because of the growing clamour – especially in the Labour Party – for an end to first-past-the-post elections and a move to more representative politics.
Does this mean Brexit is on its deathbed? Maybe not, but it’s undeniable that the elephant in the room not only smells, it’s now very big and definitely getting in the way.
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