87. Making Brexit Work – Fantasy or Deception?

An open letter to Keir Starmer

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

November 2022

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Keir Starmer has told us that Labour can ‘Make Brexit Work’ and that the return of free movement is a ‘red line’. Does he really believe it?

“No, at this stage I don’t think it would [help to rejoin the single market], and there’s no case for going back to the EU or going back into the single market. I do think there’s a case for a better Brexit. I do think there’s a very good case for making Brexit work.”

“Trade has gone down because the deal we have got is not a very good deal. I think we could move from getting Brexit done, which is all that we have managed at the moment, to making Brexit work. And I do think there is a better deal.

“But do I think that going back into years of wrangling, years of uncertainty, is going to help our economy? No, I don’t. I spent many years post-2016 talking to businesses who said to me over and over again, the thing that’s hardest for us is all the uncertainty. That really, for many years, held us back, and I don’t want to go back to that.

“But I do think that we can move forward to a better deal, because I do not think this one is working.”

Keir Starmer 5 December 2022.

(To the) Prime Minister, I have a very simple question. What does he consider to be the greatest achievement of the Conservative party in Government since 2019: leaving the single market and customs union, ending freedom of movement, denying Scotland her democracy or getting the Labour party to agree with all the above?
Stephen Flynn, New Westminster Leader, SNP, PMQs 7 Dec 2022

And it is an even worse sight watching the leader of the Labour party desperately trying to out-Brexit the Prime Minister, ruling out freedom of movement and any hope of a Swiss-style deal. Brexit is now the elephant in the room that neither the Tories nor Labour are willing to confront.
Ian Blackford, his predecessor, PMQs 30 November 2022.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake

Napoleon (attrib)

Dear Sir Keir,

Like many other voters I am troubled by the most recent reports of your comments on relations with the EU. You have told us that you can see no benefits in rejoining the EU or European single market, as if the obvious harms of leaving it did not matter. A week earlier you said, in total contrast to your promises when standing for the Labour leadership, that you oppose restoring freedom of movement and now in addition that this has now become a ‘red line’ for you. You have also said, as if this were a criticism, that some Tory ministers are going soft on Brexit. Coming from a Labour leader, these are horrifying remarks. However perhaps none of us should be surprised by them, against the background of what you have been saying over recent months.

We could not fail to notice that at last month’s CBI conference, following on from Tony Danker’s impassioned plea for the country to remain open to immigration in the interests of business and the the economy, both Mr Sunak and yourself vied with each other to rubbish the idea. In your speech you started out by saying something positive, ‘We won’t ignore the need for workers to come to this country. We can’t have a situation, as we did with HGV drivers, where temporary shortages threaten to cripple entire sectors of our economy. That would be anti-growth and anti-business’. However you immediately negated this by adding ‘But I want to be clear here – with my Labour Government, any movement in our points-based migration system – whether via the skilled worker route, or the shortage occupations list – will come alongside new conditions for business’.  Two days previously you allowed yourself to be quoted in the Express – of all papers – as saying “There is no case for going back into the EU and no case for going into the single market or customs union. Freedom of movement is over. There will be no return to that, either. What we want to do is make Brexit work.” You did not disavow the headline which said “Brexit is safe in our hands”, and you allowed the Express to describe you as “grounded”. For any self-respecting Labour leader this surely must be the kiss of death. Members of your shadow cabinet, including Rachel Reeves and Anneliese Dodds, have echoed your assertion that there is no case for looking again at rejoining the European Community, the single market or the customs union. They have spoken of minor tweaks to the UK-EU arrangements, but have committed to leaving them substantially in place, pretending that they are in some way satisfactory as they stand. This is a rose-tinted view which is not even shared by the Government which agreed those arrangements.

In a recent PMQs your first question was “why is Britain set to be the first country into recession and the last country out?”. You then proceeded to answer your own question without even attempting to make any reference to the single most obvious reason, namely Brexit.

When Tory Mark Harper says of you ‘he has caught up with the Conservative Party’ you should seriously worry

Brexit is a failed experiment – soon everyone will know

Let me remind you of some of the background against which you are speaking..

Firstly, The world has moved on. The harms of Brexit are becoming more and more apparent in the day-to-day life of ordinary people. Yes the government may attempt to gaslight us on the reasons for rising food and fuel prices, dirty rivers, longer hospital waiting lists and deteriorating public services, all of which are made worse by Brexit. However there are some visible manifestations of Brexit which are obvious to all, such as the re-introduction of roaming charges, huge increases in costs and paperwork faced by SMEs who export goods to Europe, longer airport queues, delays in the post, major problems travelling with pets, and so on.  While individually these may seem minor, cumulatively they are very tangible and make it very difficult to take seriously what we were told by the purveyors of Brexit. At the same time it is increasingly difficult for the public to ignore what is happening to the economy. We have had the OBR forecasts of 4% contraction in GDP and a 15% reduction in trade intensity – this from an agency of Government. As Paul Johnson of the IFS said earlier this week, Brexit “has had a substantially negative effect on the UK economy”. We have had an admission by ex-minister George Eustace that the main promise of the Brexiteers, ie better trade deals, was not being delivered – at least in the case of Australia.  He admitted that when he was a minister he was forced to defend the Australian trade deal despite knowing that it was damaging. The other significant new trade deal, that with Japan, has been shown by the latest figures to be associated with a fall, not an increase, in trade, and that was foreseeable, given the former importance of the UK as a gateway to the EU for Japanese exports, something which is emphatically a thing of the past.

And we are talking now not about future speculation but about observable facts on the ground.

So the wheels are coming off the Brexit bus. There is increasing evidence that the Brexit silence is ending, and we’re hearing this increasingly in the mainstream media, including the BBC and even in the Express and Telegraph. David Davis, one of the standard bearers for Brexit – and author of the soundbite ‘there will be no downside to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides’ – has now admitted that there have been no economic benefits from Brexit so far, and that he is unable to say when, if at all, they are going to come. One of Davis’s very limited services to his country is to give his name to the Davis Downside Dossier, which as we speak has accumulated no fewer than 859 downsides as against 23 upsides to Brexit.

The Farages of this world say that Brexit has failed because it was done badly, that is was a “remainers’ Brexit” and yet they are unable to tell us how they would have done it better. With an 80 seat majority the government really cannot plausibly blame anyone but itself.  The fact that Jeremy Hunt and others have been kite flying about a so-called ” Swiss deal”, unattractive as that might well be, says something of their desperation, of their recognition that, whatever they might say, they see that the UK economy, without significant further changes, is heading for the buffers. Yes, they go on talking about Brexit opportunities, but without specifics and without conviction. And the trade minister, Greg Hands, let it slip out that one of the attractions for the Tories of the planned accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was that it would bind a future Labour government’s hands in getter closer to the EU. In saying this he revealed not only that a Tory defeat was factored in, but also that he and others recognise that their Brexit is at risk. In the mean time, we are seeing Tory politicians articulating truths which Labour does not dare to speak. Daniel Hannan, sometimes called the father of Brexit, says in no uncertain terms that leaving the single market was mistake. Tobias Ellwood has called publicly for us to rejoin it, and you will no doubt have noticed that despite this he has had the whip restored to him after the fall of Johnson.

YouGov data since the referendum

Is it any surprise therefore that opinion polls are showing a shift away from Brexit? Peter Kellner estimates that out of the 17.4 million who voted Leave in 2016, 3 million have changed their minds, in addition to the 2 million who have since died. Yes, new voters have joined the electoral register, but try and guess how many of that younger group have been persuaded that Brexit is good for them. Indeed Kellner goes so far as to suggest that a ‘tipping point’ has been reached.  In a recent YouGov survey, 56% of the public now believe Brexit was a mistake, compared to 32% who did not. Looking at Labour voters, about 90% thought it a mistake. And we are now seeing a majority of voters telling pollsters that they would be in favour, in principle, of rejoining the EU. On the extreme Eurosceptic side, there is no longer any pretence that leaving is economically beneficial – the best they can say is that the harms are exaggerated. GB News presenters were red-faced when their opinion poll showed 55% of respondents to be opposed to Brexit. Even the ERG is losing its momentum – we are told that its paid up membership is shrinking – from 35 to 11. Whether that reflects the ungenerous nature of its members or disenchantment with their mission, I will leave you to judge.

Immigration is not a dirty word

On the question of migration, there are many misconceptions, well debunked by Best For Britain. Let me make a few obvious points. This country is not self-sufficient in skilled labour, and it has not been for many years. While in the EU, as you yourself have pointed out, free movement was a major bonus. EU migrants coming into the country were a very good match for skills shortages in the NHS, in caring professions, in haulage, in business, in veterinary services, in hospitality and in agriculture. Despite their presence we had a shortfall in all those areas, and of course this has now become significantly worse. The workforce shortfall is of the order of 1 million people, and there are some 600,000 people of working age who are unavailable for work because of long-term illness or disability, something which undoubtedly has been compounded by the pandemic.

Like many previously wealthy countries, the UK has an ageing population and one of the effects of migration is to compensate for that. Even when we were in the EU, UK governments had the ability to control immigration and chose not to: 50% or more of migrants came from outside the EU because they were needed. The fact that net migration is now higher than ever at 500,000, is the result of a positive decision that inward migration is needed. And of course, despite all the focus on asylum seekers and what the government chooses to call “illegal migrants”, over 90% of inward migration is through legal routes. Shortfalls persist. In my own field, general practice, there has been a reduction of 1,500 full-time equivalents since 2016, and some 40% of GPs are estimated to be within five years of retirement, partly because of the stress of the job, so the situation is getting rapidly worse. It is estimated that the doctor shortfall is about 10,000, and I do not need to tell you, patients are feeling it.  In nursing the shortage is even greater. The Nuffield Trust recently estimated that, had Brexit not happened, we would potentially have 4,000 more doctors and over 50,000 more nurses working in the NHS

You will have heard, at a time when you are calling for less migration, that not only Tony Danker but some died-in-the-wool Brexiteers, such as Tim MartinLord Wolfson of Next, and even the rabid Brexit convert Liz Truss, are calling for liberalisation. Surely you do not want to be made look like a little Englander by people of that ilk? The public view of inward migration, if we set aside the specific issue of Channel boat crossings, is far more relaxed than at the time of the referendum, and it is no longer near the top of the list of hot button topics. In 2015 71% of voters put immigration in the top 3 issues, while now it is 22%.

For that matter, are you not embarrassed that at the CBI Tony Danker expressed what must be the mood of pretty much all non-party progressives in this country, while you and the Prime Minister were saying the opposite, and in practical terms there was no clear blue water between what you and Mr Sunak had to say? No wonder that over half the population now feel they have no genuine political representation.

Like many of our more blinkered Tory countryfolk, you are calling for more British nationals to be trained up, and you are supporting a points-based immigration system. The first of these objectives is unrealistic within any sensible timescale. School leavers of today, for example, will not be ready to work as fully-fledged GPs until 2033 at the earliest – even if there were a ready supply of candidates. Not to mention that there is limited capacity for training in an overstretched health service. As to points-based systems, I sincerely hope you are not supporting the kind of system inflicted on the country by the Tories. That system equates earning capacity with value to society – so is of no value in filling the yawning gaps, for example, for carers. And being allowed into the country on sufferance, for as long as ‘needed’ is no substitute for the opportunity to make this country your home. No wonder that few EU nationals are now choosing to come to the UK, and that is our loss.

In imitating the Tory rhetoric that non-nationals are somehow less desirable, you are feeding into the ‘hostile environment’ atmosphere, and can you imagine how that makes them feel? As somebody born in Dublin I can say that with conviction.

Remember that the loss of freedom of movement is a much bigger blow to UK nationals thanks to any others. A French passport still carries the right to live and work in 31 countries, for a UK passport the number has gone down to 2. And you are telling us that you are OK with this.

Uncertainty? Are you sure?

You seem to collude with some of the most deluded Brexiters, and believing that we “Remoaners” have no choice but to “move on“ and accept the inevitable. You seem to have no idea of the visceral pain and anger which is being experienced by people whose livelihoods have been taken away for nothing. To tell them to acquiesce is frankly an insult

You talk about the dangers of business facing uncertainty if we continue to talk about single market membership. Uncertainty is exactly what we have right now. Nothing is resolved. We are looking at the potential for the Trade and Co-operation Agreement unravelling as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol and its problems, and, even worse, the likelihood of anarchy if the Repeal of EU Laws Bill goes through. Now that is the kind of uncertainty that damages confidence. The other kind of uncertainty – one that raises the possibility of life getting better – is not something which will harm business confidence, so why be frightened of it?

Car output – data from SMMT

You talk about ‘getting a better Brexit’ but you also tell us that the agreement is in place and does not need re-negotiating. Your five-point plan for making Brexit work emphasises such things as veterinary standards, SPS rules, and mutual recognition of qualifications. Welcome as these things are, none of this will help the financial sector, in a year when London has given way to Paris as the largest European centre for share dealing, or the motor industry, which has shrunk by over 50% since 2016. Nor will it help with our skills gap or the pain felt by small business trying to export. It will make an infinitesimal difference to the harms of Brexit.

Dare you upset the Red Wall?

Of course it is entirely understandable that you are trying to win over former Labour supporters who have, you believe, been alienated by talk of the evils of Brexit . However, you have taken this policy to the extremes, to the extent that you are repeatedly articulating things which you know to be untrue, and are requiring your party colleagues to do the same thing. You’re choosing to do this at a time when the mindset you are defending is more and more discredited. There is now a significant majority of the electorate who regret Brexit and regret the loss of freedom of movement. You’re allowing yourself and your party to be perceived by such people as misguided, insincere or both. You are making them angry with the pretence that it is ‘democratic’ to bind them forever to a bad decision made on questionable grounds over 6 years ago. In addition you are throwing a lifeline to Tory politicians who are seeing their Brexit dreams evaporating. You are making it more possible for the public to believe their lies and lending a veneer of respectability to their thinking. Instead you should be holding the Tories to account and allowing them to own the damage which they have caused and are continuing to cause, for example through such egregious and damaging initiatives as the repeal of EU Law Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. You should devote your energies to unmasking what they are really up to. Why leave it to the SNP to tell the simple truth?

Sir Keir, the people have moved on and left you standing. The days have gone where mention of Europe is toxic, whatever the more Corbynite of your advisors may tell you. Please follow your own judgement and do not put these Tory policies in your manifesto. Otherwise you will come into government with the choice of implementing policies you know to be harmful or of breaking your own promises

As the Swiss episode demonstrates, the Tories are tearing themselves apart over Europe. Instead of doing the same to itself, Labour should be taking advantage of this opportunity to become the adult in the room. If you lead on this, the party will follow. Take Napoleon’s advice.

This may not be the right time to call for rejoining the EU. Such a time will undoubtedly come, perhaps in the campaign for the election after next. In the meantime, why tie your own hands? That is not good for you, your party or your country

The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily representative of Oxford for Europe

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