The Seven Year Itch: the new political challenge for Brexit

How is it that something that we’re all sick to death of talking about still has the capacity to blindside us? For there’s potentially a new inflection point coming on Brexit that neither main party yet seems prepared to deal with.

In a sense, it’s a tribute to the developed nature of British political discourse that it can founder on something as abstract as a trade federation. Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, David Cameron thought he could clear the air by holding a referendum on EU membership. Whatever your view of the EU, that really hasn’t worked out, has it?

Current state of public opinion

At the end of 2021, let’s take stock. Britain is out of the EU. In fact, that happened on 31 January 2020. Britain’s relationship with the EU, however, is far from settled. The UK reached a minimal deal with the EU at the end of 2021. The UK promptly decided it didn’t like key terms relating to Northern Ireland and has been seeking to unravel them ever since. Trust is at an all-time low and it remains possible that even the current arrangements may fall apart.

Brexit remains central to British political debate. 70% of the public see their Brexit identity as fairly or very strong. This outstrips party identity, even more so in strength than in absolute numbers. To the extent that there’s waning in intensity, the waning is disproportionately on the Leave side. But both sides remain pretty vigorous for now.

Brexit has failed to convince the doubters. At the end of 2021, those who think Brexit was the right decision have polled in a tight band between 37% and 40% in the last 10 times of asking, having been in slow decline since March. There is now consensus that Brexit is going badly: roughly 60% agree with that proposition, while roughly 30% think Brexit is going well. This consensus has developed since April/May, when the gap was as close as 49:40.

We should pause to note how unusual this is. Normally, controversial policies increase in popularity once implemented. I have long been struck by how incurious Leavers are about the fact that they have failed to persuade doubters. In the long run, this failure is likely to prove fatal to their cause.

But not yet. While the public might regret Brexit and how it is being implemented, it is not yet ready to revisit the decision. Polling on rejoining the EU hovers around the 50:50 mark. This is nothing like the level required to justify holding a referendum.

Likely public opinion in 2022

Unless something changes, we can expect to see a continuing glissando in support levels for Brexit. We are not yet at an inflection point, but we’re not far away. Currently the public is split something close to 40:50 on the idea that Brexit is a good idea. If that moves to 35:55 (that’s 40:60 without Don’t Knows), a new consensus emerges that Brexit was a bad idea that is going badly — in a public, remember, where Brexit identity is strong.

There is no inevitability that the current trend will continue. There are, however, three good reasons why it probably will. First, while the government is arguing that the current deal is unacceptable, they are literally telling the public that Brexit is not good enough. Having told the public that, any failure to gain substantial improvements will simply confirm that in the public’s mind. The Conservatives are finding out that you can type this shit but you sure can’t say it.

(I have absolutely no idea what the government’s strategy is here. Logically it should have accepted whatever it could easily extract from the EU and declare that a triumph — not least because the people of Northern Ireland, inconveniently for those wanting to go into cold war over the Irish border, are actually coming round to the idea that the protocol might work rather well for them — but the government has spurned the obvious opportunity to do that. Other such opportunities might well not be forthcoming, especially as other governments, notably the French, have electioneering of their own to do. It’s all very well stoking up anti-EU feeling, but you need to have some form of exit strategy. None is apparent.)

Secondly, a central driver of Brexit, fixing immigration, is conspicuously falling apart. The government is visibly unable to stop irregular migration and it is visibly unable to persuade France in particular to do more to stop it. Never mind that job vacancies are at all-time highs and that the government has been forced to junk its immigration rules for workers as unconnected as hauliers, farm workers and care workers, the public was told Brexit would allow the government successfully to lock out foreigners. Right now the government is failing and is palpably out of ideas as to what to do. The best it has come up with, setting up detention centres in places like Albania, has been officially denied in every country so far mentioned.

Thirdly, and least noticed, there are now no advocates of Brexit capable of speaking persuasively to the centre ground. Boris Johnson, previously Leave’s best asset, is now hugely unpopular. Most of Leave’s big backers are capable only of preaching to the converted. Michael Gove? Nigel Farage? Jacob Rees-Mogg? They’re not exactly alluring to the median voter. Perhaps Liz Truss can get past her previous support of Remain to become a persuasive advocate for Leave. Perhaps Rishi Sunak, who at least did back Leave in 2016, can talk to the public’s hearts. Right now, however, it seems more likely that Brexit is going to be tainted by association with those who advocated it and who are now discredited in the public’s eyes.

Implications of a further drift in public support for Brexit

If a new consensus is reached that Brexit is a bad idea going badly, the political landscape becomes unstable. Pressure for a change of course will intensify. It causes problems for both Labour and the Conservatives. Paradoxically, the problems are strategically trickier for Labour.

For the Conservatives, the strategy relating to Brexit is simple. They have to keep supporting it wholeheartedly and defending it against any backsliding. It’s their flagship policy. They have to go down with that ship. In any case, if 35% of the public still support Brexit, that’s more than are thinking of voting Conservative right now. It’s a cause that might well help bolster their polling position if it becomes salient again.

It’s not that easy for Labour. A big chunk of their support base passionately believes that Brexit was a catastrophe and wants to see the whole thing reversed as soon as possible. Meanwhile, there is no immediate prospect in reality of rejoining the EU for the simple reason that the EU will have no appetite for going through yet another round of interminable negotiations with Britain wanting special treatment and no certainty that a referendum would deliver a clear result. In any case, the public definitively regretting what’s happened would not be the same as necessarily wanting to reverse it. It’s a lot easier to break things than remake them, and the public knows that. And after seven years of argument about Brexit, appetite for a further referendum to reravel Britain’s EU membership will be muted.

Labour would need a policy that catered for all parts of its target electorate — avid pro-Europeans, the regretful who want quieter times and leftists who are actually still quite happy that Britain is outside the EU. Just setting out the problem shows the difficulty.

My suggested solution would be to acknowledge that reversing Brexit is not going to be on the cards in the next Parliament and ruling it out for that timespan, using that time instead to restore the civil relations with the EU that the Conservatives have evidently failed to deliver. Having made that commitment, I would set out an objective test for measuring when that decision might be revisited and promising to enact that. Possible tests might include: clear evidence that the public wanted to return to the EU; confirmation from the EU that it was interested in negotiating Britain’s return to the EU; a statement from the government of the time that rejoining the EU was a priority high enough to justify the time that would absorb; and a commitment that any deal so negotiated would be put to a referendum.

I’m sure that could be improved upon as a strategy. Anyway, Labour should be preparing one in case they need one. They need to show that they understand the language of priorities and that reversing Brexit is down the list.

If, and it’s a big if, Labour can get over that hump and it can get themselves into power after the next election, the Conservatives might well find themselves in the same longterm trap that they found themselves in after 1997 — biologically obliged to keep screaming about the threat of the EU to a public that sees it as a second order priority and looking increasingly weird. Labour, meanwhile, could slowly mitigate the damage done without having to pretend to like Brexit. Five quiet years could radically alter the landscape for future realignments.

Summary

2022 is likely to be a critical year for the future of Brexit. Sooner or later, Brexit needs to start looking like it is working well enough if it is not going to become part of the national mythology as a great error. The government doesn’t seem to realise this, preferring repeatedly to fix itself a quick high by drumming up anti-EU feeling. Time is running out for it to change this. The dangers are apparent.

In parallel, Labour may need to use the force carefully. Reversing Brexit in the short term does not yet command sufficient support to make it a viable policy but they need to find something to say to their many supporters who passionately want a new hope.

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Alastair Meeks

Alastair Meeks

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