Three Conservative prime ministers have led the UK government since 2010 and all three departed involuntarily from Downing Street. David Cameron, instigator of the Brexit referendum, resigned promptly on 24 June 2016, the morning after its defeat. His successor Theresa May had choices for British economic policy compliant with the referendum result, which was a 52%-48% majority for Brexit, but with the ballot paper offering just a binary Leave/Remain choice. There was no detailed plan and the UK could have quit the EU while maintaining preferential trading links.
Non-member Norway is effectively a member of the single market, another non-member Turkey is attached to the customs union, while Switzerland adheres to a complex set of bilateral regulatory and customs arrangements. All three enjoy many of the trading benefits of membership from outside the union.
May promptly closed off the ‘soft’ Brexit option, encoded in the second of the triplet of slogans which punctuated the debate. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ she promised, making her hostage to a Eurosceptic minority in the House of Commons. The first of the three-word slogans was ‘Take Back Control’, the highly effective appeal of the Leave campaign to voters who were against immigration, so free movement inside the EU was sacrificed to appease the Brexiteers.
There was no detailed plan and the UK could have quit the EU while maintaining preferential trading links
This implied departure from the single market. Ambitions for a global Britain, free to do unlikely trade deals with the whole wide world, meant no truck with the customs union either. This is what it meant to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Boris Johnson’s contribution to the trio of three-word alternatives to a serious discussion about economic policy outside the European Union. Johnson concluded only a bare-bones free trade agreement with the EU, available to any third country, which avoids tariffs but inflicts heavy compliance costs and limits market access across the board. British firms now enjoy no greater privileges in trading with their best available market than do Brazil or Korea.
Labour is now formally a hard Brexit party, at least for now
The referendum was David Cameron’s choice. The hard Brexit which finally emerged and with less damaging alternatives available, was the path chosen by May and Johnson. The UK business community, now counting the cost of a hard Brexit, may yet turn away from the Tories, no longer seen by them the safe-pair-of-hands party.
Labour leader Keir Starmer gave an important speech on 4 June, setting out his party’s position on relations with the EU. Significantly, he ruled out any attempt to find a new accommodation with the single market and customs union. Labour is now formally a hard Brexit party, at least for now.
Starmer will be civil in his dealings with Europe and was in Germany the week before last, meeting German chancellor Olaf Scholz. He conducted a telephone interview with LBC’s Andrew Marr, who asked him a straightforward question – had he met anyone in Germany who thought staying out of the single market would be good for the British economy? Starmer waffled and Marr asked the question again.
A slowdown in the British economy has commenced, public services are not well funded and tax cuts on any significant scale are not sustainable
Starmer waffled again, unwilling to give the truthful answer, namely that no, he had not met anyone in Germany who thought Britain imposing economic sanctions on itself was clever.
The next election is a little over two years away and Starmer is comfortably ahead in the polls. If the new Tory leader, likely to be Liz Truss according to opinion polls, fails to deliver, there is every chance that the next Tory prime minister will be the last for a while.
A slowdown in the British economy has commenced, public services are not well funded and tax cuts on any significant scale are not sustainable. The full costs of Brexit are incapable of concealment and the traditional support base of the Conservative party in business and farming has begun to notice.
There is no prospect of Brexit reversal for the foreseeable future, even with a change of government. EU members would be suspicious of re-admitting a country with a strong Europhobic opposition, likely to favour departure all over again.
Starmer’s reluctance to embrace a softer Brexit stance is hardly a reflection of his convictions about where Britain’s economic interests lie
Starmer’s reluctance to embrace a softer Brexit stance is hardly a reflection of his convictions about where Britain’s economic interests lie. His recent speeches include proposals for closer co-operation on veterinary standards and science funding, but he has shied away from seeking single market or customs union inclusion, perhaps fearing accusations that Labour is soft on free movement, or a backdoor Brexit reversal, against the ‘will of the people’.
Continental EU countries can gaze on the dysfunction in British politics with more detachment than is prudent here in the Republic of Ireland, because of the Northern Ireland issue (Liz Truss supports unilateral abandonment of Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol) but also because an unsuccessful UK economy is never in the Republic’s interests. The Government should be hoping for a Starmer government by 2024, able to move further away from hard Brexit.