Three years after Britain finally left the European Union, Brexit has not only lost its popularity, but also, it seems, its power. Today, according to new UnHerd polling, not only does a clear majority think the decision to leave was wrong, but a majority in every constituency in the country — bar one — feels the same. Even more significant than this, however, is the revelation that public views are beginning to harden down old party lines again, merging the old Tory and Labour divide with Leave and Remain. Brexit, that once-great scrambling event in British politics that sliced through the old partisan loyalties, has started to settle into a more easily understandable Left and Right-wing issue. And here’s the potentially transformative effect of this great re-formation: it is now Labour who stands to gain from the Brexit revolution, not the Tories.
Between 2016 and 2019, Brexit allowed the Conservative Party to win over parts of the country it had previously found almost impossible to conquer. Boris Johnson’s pledge to “Get Brexit Done” appealed to enough people in traditional Labour areas to flip scores of seats blue. Today, though the effect itself has flipped. Brexit has been done and most people have concluded it was a mistake. Swing areas in northern England, Wales and the Midlands have turned against Brexit more strongly than traditional Tory areas.
The problem for the Tories is that all those voters who regret Brexit also see it as synonymous with the Conservative Party. Labour, on the other hand, has become associated with Remain — even though it rejects the idea of rejoining the EU and has vowed to “make Brexit work”. Labour, then, finds itself in the enviable position of benefiting from the Tory party’s association with Brexit, but without having to actually risk reopening the old wounds of the referendum by pledging to rejoin the EU. “Making Brexit Work” is smart politics — for now.
We have been here before. Look at what happened in Scotland after the independence referendum. There, the No campaign saw off the independence movement in 2014, but the parties associated with its victory became unpopular shortly after. The same thing didn’t happen immediately after the Brexit referendum, but the effect might just have been delayed by parliament’s failure to deliver on that result until 2020. So, we may now be witnessing the “loser’s premium” that couldn’t kick in until Brexit had actually been delivered.
This could be potentially transformative, but is not without some peril for Labour — and the country. The more voters declare their regret over Brexit, the more pressure there will be from Remainers to re-open the constitutional question over Europe — in the same way that the issue of independence has not gone away in Scotland. It is at this point that the difference between believing that Britain should not have left the EU, and believing it should open negotiations (and almost certainly hold another referendum) to rejoin will also emerge. The old conditions of British membership, remember, have gone and so “Rejoin” is not “reverse Brexit”; it now means creating something new. Would this mean, then, even higher budget contributions than before, the adoption of the euro and accession to Schengen? It seems impossible that David Cameron’s renegotiated membership plan (remember that?) could somehow be resurrected. The history of Britain’s entry — and exit — negotiations suggests very strongly that it will not be Britain who sets the terms, but the EU.
Starmer is therefore right to conclude that “Making Brexit Work” is a far surer bet than Rejoin: he could capitalise on the public’s disappointment with Brexit. However, there is another challenge for Starmer and the Labour Party. Just as Franklin Roosevelt was said to have saved capitalism from itself in the Thirties (a disputed claim, of course) by deploying the full power of the state to wrench the country out of its great depression, it may fall to Starmer — the man who called for a second referendum — to save Brexit from itself. There are plenty of people, of course, who think it is simply not possible to make it work, who believe that the only option is ever more close alignment with the EU — thereby undermining the very purpose of Brexit in the first place. If the only way to make Brexit work is to give up control by adopting whatever laws are passed in Brussels, this, to put it mildly, does not seem a very sensible place to be.
Labour, though, insists this is not its plan — or, at least, not the entirety of its plan. It does want to reduce “unnecessary” trade barriers, seek more “equivalence” and “cooperation”, but it has pledged to “use our flexibility outside of the EU to ensure British regulation is adapted to suit British needs”. As it pushes this, the more Labour will create a record which it will, logically, want to defend but which would be impossible inside the EU and would have to be abandoned if the country rejoined. In other words, the more Starmer succeeds on his own terms by making Brexit work, the more he will have created a new status quo, embedding the very project more and more of his voters believe was a fundamental mistake. Fate is a funny thing.
Just because the Labour party is currently committed to making it work doesn’t guarantee the security of the Brexiteer project. In 20 years, Britain went from voting for Tony Blair to voting for Brexit. And it was only 25 years before Blair that Britain joined the Common Market. Nothing is set in stone: over time, attitudes and positions shift. What we now see as marginal, politically impossible propositions can suddenly become possible and then popular and then, after being adopted, apparently inevitable. Just think of monetarism and floating currencies, for example, both marginal policies in the Seventies that became government policy in the Eighties. The idea of leaving the EU itself was once considered too extreme for all but the most hardline eurosceptics as well. Then it became the majority view in the country. There’s nothing to say the same can’t happen to Rejoin.
This current shift in public mood against Brexit isn’t just a Labour victory — it is very much a Tory defeat. The referendum in 2016 revealed a pent-up frustration with the status quo. Taken literally, it was a vote, according to the Leave manifesto, to control immigration, spend more money (and by implication, improve) public services particularly the NHS — and change the basic economic settlement to improve more people’s living standards which had stagnated. Those who voted Leave did so for lots of different reasons, of course. For some it was a vote in favour of dramatic changes to the economy and the country; for others to slow or stop the dramatic changes they felt were already happening and for which they blamed EU membership. Sevenoaks voted to leave, as did Sunderland.
Either way, it was a vote against the old system. Yet for most people, nothing has changed — or if it has, it has got noticeably worse. And so is it any wonder people believe it was a mistake? Britain has erected a trade border within its own country without bothering to enforce its own borders. It has signed trade deals which seem to make it harder for British producers to export without making it harder for foreign competitors to import into Britain. It has allowed immigration to increase, failed to stop the small boat crossings, let the health service fall to bits and begun a new round of austerity. The Tories couldn’t have designed a set of outcomes less in keeping with the spirit of the Leave vote. The truth is, the Tory party lost its grip on the revolution — and is now paying the price.