Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer can barely say the B-word (The Times)

Introduction LO:

This topic is truly amazing: a majority of the British population now regrets Brexit except for its politicians (eg, Times). The article argues that it’s fear that keeps politicians away from discussing it. Perhaps, it is indeed. However, fear over what exactly? And – more importantly – why?

It has been argued by others that it will take “decades” before the UK will rejoin the EU (eg, Simon Kuper in FT). First and foremost, everyone who was (politically) involved in Brexit must be “gone”. A clean slate is impossible with their remaining influence.

In my view, those future British politicians will then argue that Brexit was an act of stupidity. Today, guilt and shame (over that stupidity) will prevent any British discussion on Brexit.

The same may apply across the English Channel because few continental Europeans would be willing to consider accepting the UK as a “new” member, and probably also for several decades.

The price of stupidity is high.

The Times title: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer can barely say the B-word
The Times subtitle: Even now, with no benefits of Brexit visible, neither leader will bring himself to acknowledge the elephant in the room
By: Hugo Rifkind
Date: 9 January 2023

“Telling people who voted for Brexit that Brexit wasn’t really about Brexit is patronising. It also, among other things, risks making you sound quite mad, as if you were a shopkeeper dealing with a customer who had come in to buy some shoes and you said to them, “Ah no sir, but perhaps what you really want is these carrots?” And yet it seems to be what Sir Keir Starmer is doing. And it does not help, in any way, that he may be right.

Last week, Starmer made an important speech that both was and was not about Brexit. You may not have noticed it amid the far more important news that a man with a contentious beard had a fight with his brother four years ago and fell over and broke a dog bowl, but I promise it did happen. His theme was “Take Back Control” but not in that way. In other ways.

“As I went around the country, campaigning for Remain,” he said, “I couldn’t disagree with the basic case so many Leave voters made to me.” The basic case about leaving the European Union? Wow! But no. He meant the case for nicer high streets, and better services, and stuff like that. In other words, he meant almost everything that leaving the EU could possibly have been about, apart from the “leaving the EU” bit. Which he now doesn’t want to talk about at all.

Rishi Sunak doesn’t want to talk about it either. In November, The Sunday Times reported that his government planned to “put Britain on the path to a Swiss-style relationship” with the EU, code for pursuing frictionless trade via regulatory alignment. In a speech to the CBI the next day, though, Sunak all but threw up his tiny arms in horror at the very thought.

He was against alignment, he insisted, because Brexit was already delivering “enormous benefits” to Britain. “Migration being an immediate one,” he continued, which was bold, given that this country was about to record the highest immigration figures ever, while still somehow not having enough workers to fill all of our jobs. Which doesn’t sound like a huge benefit. Yet if Sunak hadn’t pretended Brexit was going splendidly then the next obvious question would have been “why not?”

Any honest answer would play into the hands of the latest incarnation of the zombie Brexit Party, who may be called Reform UK now, although it’s hard to keep up because they’ve had more names than Grant Shapps. Having been at the forefront of every unrealistic promise about Brexit, these people take zero responsibility for any of those promises not coming true. I suppose it’s like somebody who uses a fake photo on a dating app turning up in the pub and blaming everybody else for the way they still don’t look like a supermodel.

They have fellow travellers in the Conservative Party, but do not confuse any of them with proper politicians. They are Brexit witchfinders. They exist only to denounce those without faith.

They should be busier than they are, because Brexit is a disaster. Why is that even still a contentious statement? Yesterday our business pages reported on a survey by the manufacturing trade body Make UK which has concluded that political instability since Brexit has made the UK less attractive to investors.

It’s not just “since” Brexit, though, is it? “Since” is too soft. Otherwise it’s like saying that your car has been slower “since” you wrapped it around a lamppost, or that your dog barks less “since” it died. Why have we lost four PMs since the referendum? It’s not like we’ve just been fannying about. It’s because two of them admitted they couldn’t make Brexit work and the other two were erratic chancers who only got the job because they pretended they could. It’s Brexit all the way down.

Certainly, there are other contributors to our current economic woes — Covid, global inflation, Ukraine — but every economic body out there agrees on why it is that our slump will be longer and harder. We are the only member of the G7 with an economy smaller than before the pandemic. There have been no brilliant trade deals.

I could go on, but you know all this already. Everyone does. And, given that the prime minister supported Brexit and the leader of the opposition did not, you might expect our politics to be dominated by little else.

Instead, Brexit is discussed with a sort of weird, backwards fatalism, like someone who wants to make the best of now only having one foot, and simply can’t bear to admit that life might be better if the other foot was still on, too. Interviewed in The Times Magazine this weekend, the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wouldn’t be drawn on re-entry to the single market, another Swiss euphemism. “I think that ship has sailed,” she said. But where to?

It seems to me that two things about our Brexit future are becoming obvious. The first is that, whatever name we give it, there is no route forwards that doesn’t involve considerably greater alignment with EU rules. The second is that neither major party has the courage to admit this. And between the two of them, it puts a great lie at the centre of our politics.

I can see why we are here. Both leaders are scared of their voters, and Sunak is scared of his party too. But it’s not healthy. Not least because the more obvious this lie becomes, then the more people will notice it. And before long, once again, we will have a political class that looks aloof, and perhaps even a little contemptuous of an electorate deemed too unsophisticated to understand its own best interests.

And that, I think, is something that Starmer in particular should worry about. Because, as he said, Brexit wasn’t just about Brexit, was it?”



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