Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
According to opinion polls, the level of ‘Bregret’ — the belief that leaving the EU was a mistake — is at an all-time high.
“For how long will our two major parties continue to ignore this?”, asked Gavin Barwell last week.
In respect to the Conservatives, the answer was not long at all. According to the Sunday Times, “senior government figures” are seeking a “Swiss-style relationship” between Britain and the European Union.
The comparison to Switzerland shouldn’t be taken too literally — it’s short-hand for a somewhat softer Brexit, not a replication of the bespoke deal between Brussels and Bern.
Nevertheless, hardcore Brexiteers, like Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch, are alarmed: “this is a reversal of the 2016 EU referendum” he warns. He promises to “fight for the Brexit the electorate voted for.”
But is it already too late? Writing in the Daily Mail, about the Autumn Statement on Thursday, Andrew Neil declares that this was this was “The Week Brexit Died”.
Of course, what was buried last Thursday wasn’t Brexit, but the fantasy of a low-regulation, low-tax ‘Singapore-on-Thames’. This was always a doomed political project — one that demonstrated little understanding of contemporary Britain (or, for that matter, Singapore).
As for the Brexit that the Leave voters actually voted for, the only way to reverse that is for Britain to rejoin the European Union. This is the danger that Tory Brexiteers should focus on, not the shattering of the Trussite delusion.
A first step to averting this growing threat would be to win the next election. But, realistically, we need to be prepared for an incoming Labour government. That doesn’t mean giving-up all hope of victory — far from it — but, for once, we need to start thinking ahead.
Believe it or not, some things are more important that winning elections and one of those things, I’d suggest, is British sovereignty.
I realise that Sir Keir Starmer now regards Brexit as water under the bridge. Indeed, he’s explicitly ruled-out rejoining the Single Market or the Customs Union. So is there anything to worry about?
Well, that depends on how much store you set by the settled positions of Sir Keir. Don’t forget that in 2016 Labour promised to respect the outcome of the Brexit referendum, but then — with Starmer directing operations — they did everything in their power to block Theresa May’s deal, force a second referendum and overturn the original result.
It all went horribly wrong for them in December 2019 — but, in the aftermath, an extraordinary thing happened: Labour Remainers managed to pin all of the blame for their election defeat on Jeremy Corbyn (who only deserved half of it). Having secured the party leadership on a unity platform, Starmer then proceeded to purge the Corbynites and remove Corbyn from the parliamentary party. A man who once campaigned to put Magic Grandpa into Downing Street, now won’t even let him stand as a Labour MP.
Obviously, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh, but the joke’s on us if we rely on Steadfast Starmer to secure Brexit.
We therefore need to think forward from the current situation to where a possible Labour government might be in three or four years’ time. Constrained by the fiscal framework erected by Jeremy Hunt — and by ongoing fiscal realities — Starmer could find himself struggling to satisfy his comrades. Unable to stimulate the economy or buy votes through borrow-and-spend, he would need an alternative outlet for leftist frustrations. Reversing Brexit would be a tempting option.
Also, let’s not forget the Liberal Democrats. It’s easily done, I know, but the yellows are undergoing a significant transformation. What used to be the anti-establishment party of the Celtic Fringe is discovering a new purpose in life — which is to be the ‘nimby-but-nice’ party of southern England.
As we saw in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, nimbyism has the power to be a massive vote-winner. That potential will grow if Labour takes power and attempts a big push on house building.
However, to mobilise the civically-minded professionals most likely to vote for them, the Lib Dems would need to balance opportunistic opposition to development with a high-minded openness to the world. And what better way for progressive nimbies to salve their guilty consciences than by voting for the party of Rejoin?
By the second half of this decade it will be more than ten years since the Lib Dem come-uppance of 2015. Memories of the Coalition government are already fading away. (Nick Clegg? Isn’t he the Facebook guy?) If the Lib Dems can find a more exciting leader than Sir Ed Davey, then they could re-emerge as a serious rival to Labour — as they were when Charles Kennedy led the opposition to the Iraq war.
So make no mistake: Brexit is not safe with Starmer. By the time of the election after next, he could find himself under irresistible pressure from the Rejoiners — both within and beyond his party.
However, the case for elevated concern needn’t rely on what-if scenarios, no matter how plausible. Demographic inevitability should be enough to forewarn us. As the worst kind of Remainer so gleefully points out, older voters — who were more likely to vote Leave than their children and grandchildren — are going the way of all flesh.
Thus we must be ready to renew the fight for Brexit.
That means not repeating the near-fatal mistake of the 24th June 2016, when Brexiteers assumed that the fight was over. As it turned out, ‘merely’ winning the biggest mandate in British history was not enough. What followed was another five years of struggle to get Brexit done — and in which Brexit was almost lost.
It was a harsh and painful lesson that hardcore Remainers — and now the Rejoiners — will never give up. They will continue to turn every misfortune that befalls our country — from the Covid pandemic to the global supply chain crisis — into an anti-Brexit parable.
They will distort every statistic and cherry-pick every baseline in order to shift the blame to our national act of self-determination. They will overlook the Eurozone’s fracture lines, pretend not to notice the advance of continental populism and completely ignore the fact that when ‘European values’ came under deadly attack, it was the British who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine, not the French or the Germans.
And yet there’s nothing that our opponents have done to us that exceeds the harm we’ve done to ourselves. When the Johnson government sunk into the disgrace of Partygate and the Truss experiment spiralled out-of-control, we failed in our responsibilities to the British people.
Rishi Sunak and Hunt are clearing away the mess left behind, but so far they’ve put nothing in its place.
That has to change and fast. The fight for Brexit is on again and time is running out.