Brexit is not working. This was the subtext for one of the most curious attempts at Brexit reconciliation yet ventured – last week’s cross-party “summit” of leavers and remainers at the 17th-century Ditchley Park country house in Oxfordshire.
You don’t have to accept the spurious precision of recent attempts to estimate the damage done by Brexit to the UK economy – the latest from a Bank of England ratesetter to the effect that it has cost £1,000 per household in lost investment – to know that the glorious cause is in a lot of trouble.
Brexit has not been delivered as promised. That’s a fact. And how to make it work better remains as elusive as ever. Having taken back control, neither the Government nor the Opposition seem to know what to do with it.
Even agreeing on what the “national interest” might be in this regard – the vainglorious purpose of last week’s conflab – is these days a virtually impossible challenge.
The more everyone quarrels, the more it dooms the governing Tory Party to electoral oblivion. Having led us into it, the Conservative Party unambiguously owns the property, however many true believers might like to blame others for its now manifest disappointments.
Oddly unaware of the irony, the purists have become part of the very same British disease they complain of in others – that of excusing themselves for failings by blaming someone else, in this case, some kind of imagined, deep state, establishment conspiracy.
Whether the assembled at Ditchley Park – the leveling up secretary Michael Gove, New Labor architect Peter Mandelson, and recently sacked Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar, among them – came to any conclusion is unreported. Yet somehow I doubt it, for other than to row back on the particularly “hard” form of Brexit the Johnson government engineered, answers are far from obvious.
This is a definite no, no for the Tory right, which would regard it as a sell out, and – theoretically at least – it has also been ruled out by the Labor opposition. The Labor leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has committed to staying outside both the EU’s single market and its customs union, terrified as he still is of further alienating voters in former red wall constituencies.
Yet it is the Tories that have the most to fear. Once upon a time, the promise of getting Brexit done was electoral gold. But now delivered, the attractions have faded, once again proving the old adage that it is better to travel hopefully than to actually arrive.
As it is, the Prime Minister’s predicament is reminiscent of the schisms that tore the Tory Party apart under John Major in the mid-1990s. This is meant to be the party of enterprise and growth, yet they spend their time obsessing over Europe. Now, as then, the business community looks on in horror – and in so doing finds itself drawn ever more closely to a reformed Labor Party, back then freeing itself of its militant tendency and today of the curse of Corbynism.
But let us be clear. At root, Brexit was a vote for sovereignty, not for the economy. That it has so far failed on the latter should come as no surprise. There was always bound to be a trade-off between the two; the greater the sovereignty claimed, the more it would damage Britain’s relationship with its largest trading partner – the rest of Europe.
These concerns were widely aired at the time of the referendum, and then again in the subsequent interminable political debate over what form of exit Britain should adopt, but went unheeded.
Boris Johnson said he was in favor of both having cake and eating it; when warned by commercial lobbies that this would not be possible, he famously said “f… business”. This he proceeded to do. Not least the City, which is fast losing its position as Europe’s de facto financial center.
EU negotiators were left astonished when at every turn in the trade talks, sovereignty was automatically prioritized over the economy. It was as if UK negotiators were deliberately trying to harm the commercial interest in blind pursuit of impractical isolationism.
In the event, the triumvirate of promises made on the campaign trail have all fallen flat. More money for the NHS? If there ever was any, it’s not made a blind bit of difference. The NHS’s problems go much deeper than lack of resources, and in any case have virtually nothing to do with membership of the European Union. In no small measure, current staff shortages are in fact a direct consequence of Brexit.
As for better control of immigration, despite the new immigration regime, the overall numbers have continued to soar. It’s just the makeup that has changed. Take students: the influx from Europe has plummeted, but this has been more than made up for by a surge in numbers from China, the rest of the Far East, Nigeria, and particularly India.
As advocated by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, we could clamp down on that intake if we wanted, but it would be curtains for the charade of one of Britain’s most successful industries – tertiary education. I say charade, because in many cases the consequent degrees are bought, not earned through study.
I doubt that those who saw migration as a Brexit issue were voting for today’s reality – that migrants from Europe would simply be replaced by those from the Sub-Continent and Africa.
Then finally there was the promise that abandoning the protectionist, walled garden of the EU would free the UK up to pursue the growth markets of the future.
Well, there has admittedly been some growth in trade with the rest of the world, but little which can directly be attributed to Brexit freedoms.
Those few, genuinely new free trade deals that have since been signed are merely a triumph of presentation over substance. In at least one case, they were downright disadvantaged.
Foreign negotiators have ruthlessly taken advantage of the Government’s desperate desire for anything that might be passed off as a Brexit dividend.
It’s a long game, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg insist, and perhaps he’s right. But it’s been nearly seven years now, which is quite long enough to show some gain. In the long run, we are all dead, said John Maynard Keynes. “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again”. Quite so.
It’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that a softening up of Brexit is coming, whatever the politicians say to the contrary. There is only so long you can keep beating your head against the wall.
Brexit cannot and should not be undone, but it can be made more comfortable. What we have at the moment is a bed of nails. Unfortunately, the Tories are likely to pay a heavy price for making it.