About an hour and a half before Liz Truss made no excuses and left, an article headed ‘Is this a Remainder coup?’ by Brendan O’Neill, appeared on the Spectator website. Sadly, he voiced this opinion that ‘Remainers run the country now’.
He based this conclusion on the observation that Brexiteers Kwasi Kwarteng and Suella Braverman had been sacked – though the latter was later reinstated by Sunak – and replaced by Remainers Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps. The Treasury, stuffed full of Remainer advisors, was once more in charge.
According to Mr O’Neill ‘The sidelining of Truss, the tempering of her agenda, is leading us back to the anti-ideology, anti-politics blancmange of Cameroonism that voters quite firmly rejected’.
No surprise that a Telegraph writer had voiced similar concerns. A few days earlier Tim Stanley had a less colourful but more sophisticated explanation of a return to Remainer rule. ‘I am not saying there is a conspiracy afoot. There’s no need……We have a way of doing things, old bean, and we make it gently inconceivable to do it any other way.’
My first acquaintance with such Brexiteer panic attacks came about two months ago when the Telegraph columnist Allister Heath voiced the dire warning that Brexit was in danger of being cancelled. Remainer forces were massing at the borders. Brexit was on the brink. Remainers were arguing that Britain’s present economic ills were down to Brexit and focus groups were falling for it. “Truss is Brexit’s last hope”, he gasped.
The odd thing about the article was that while Mr Heath produced an impressive range of arguments, both exaggerated and fatuous, being advanced against Brexit, he did not name a single guilty party. Surely Alistair Campbell deserved a mention?
The troubled reinstatement of Suella Braverman and Brexit-supporting Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister will have done little to assuage right wing Brexiteers fears. With the likelihood of Labour winning power in 2024 – assuming the Tories last that long – Remainers really would be running the country.
These dire warnings didn’t manage to forecast how Brexit would be revoked or where our relationship with the EU might end up. There would have to be another referendum to take us back into the EU’s sticky embrace, but no sane UK government would risk reigniting the divisions and anger of the 2016 referendum in the foreseeable future.
So why all this Brexit angst? For right wing Brexiteers like Liz Truss, Brexit is about the opportunity for the UK to break out of a low growth, high tax, highly regulated EU economic model and become a Singapore-on-the-Thames. It was though, a rather more modest Brexit that millions of us voted for. No Red Wall voter ever told one of TV’s ubiquitous reporters their vote for Boris and Brexit had much to do with Singapore, or rejection of anti-ideology, Cameroonism, blancmanges, or anything else in Mr O’Neill list. We simply wanted decisions taken by elected and accountable politicians in Westminster rather than bureaucrats in Brussels. And control of our borders, as yet more a hope than a result.
With such right-wing Brexit anxiety, it’s hardly surprising to find hope among Labour Remainers that a Starmer premiership would find a way to, at least partially, reverse Brexit and return to the single market, or something much like it. But it’s hard to decipher what this might mean or how it could happen.
Last month the Times’s usually impressive columnist Daniel Finkelstein wrote an article headed ‘Starmer’s big illusion? That Brexit is done’. The question mark was needed as Finkelstein suggests he knew why Starmer, when in power, would change his mind on ruling out a return to the EU or the single market, even though the Labour leader hadn’t yet realised it himself. A bold claim.
A Labour government would, says Finkelstein, “wish to be part of the European social model and offer protections and benefits at least as great as those on the continent”. Many Tories, including Brexiteers, also want protection for workers and the maintenance of decent benefits, and would endorse much of the EU’s ‘social model’, though not by being ‘part of’ it.
Under Labour, the Times columnist continues: “businesses would be offered a trading environment that is as expensive as anywhere else in Europe without the advantages of free European trade. This wouldn’t work economically.’
Another bold claim, as extreme as claims by some Brexiteers that only a Full Monty Brexit can revive the UK economy. There are certainly countries outside the EU with flourishing economies that have strong regulatory protections and support the vulnerable, while trading successfully with the EU. As this site has shown there is no evidence that Brexit has damaged the UK economy even in its more vulnerable early period.
Our writer concludes: ‘How exactly Starmer would move towards creating trading alignment with Europe I do not know, but that his government would do so I’m pretty certain.’
So there, members of the jury, we have it. Mr Finkelstein is ‘pretty’ (a note of justifiable caution) ‘certain’ that a policy, he knows not what, he knows not how, would be adopted by a leader who does know either. And a leader who has ruled out any return to the EU or single market.
We note too, the vagueness of the conclusion that Labour would move towards creating ‘trading alignment with the EU’. What does this mean? Does it mean we would, to all intents and purposes, be in the single market? Would we automatically sign up to every regulatory rule handed down from Brussels?
I have pondered over Mr Finkelstein’s musing because I think they illustrate a problem that convinced Remainers face. They know that attempting to return to the EU’s orbit, either fully or partially, would be a national humiliation. It would trigger a ferocious debate. The general public would groan at the prospect of a reopening of divisions we thought were firmly in the past.
Hope among Labour Remainers of a return to the EU has also risen with the likelihood of a Labour election victory. But like Daniel Finkelstein, they proceed with caution. An article by Francis Beckett, posted on the New European website, written just before the Labour Party Conference in September, refers to a possible return to the single market, or even a revoking of Brexit. ‘But Keir Starmer,’ he writes, ‘isn’t going to do either. He thinks the electoral consequences could be disastrous.’
The article tells us what a Labour government could do to make Brexit work better: mutual recognition of professional qualifications, tearing down trade barriers, getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy. Brexiteers might well respond: what’s not to like?
More in hope more than expectation, Mr Beckett’s final sentence vaguely suggests that after a second election victory Sir Keir might ‘stop putting sticking plasters on our national wounds and start repairing them instead’. Like Daniel Finkelstein, he does not mention the toxic words single market.
About a month later, Beckett is more optimistic. He argues the Labour leader is more radical than we realise. If he can carry out his radical policies, then ‘a return to the EU must, in the long term, be on the cards.’ Francis Beckett, like Brexiteer writers, either fails to recognise or fails to admit what is the biggest obstacle to any return to the EU: Labour’s leader, Sir Kier Starmer.
Sir Kier was badly burned by Brexit. His disgraceful attempts to frustrate the democratic vote and support for a second referendum, make him the least likely leader to lead the country back into the EU. Why on earth would he choose the uncertainty of a second referendum, his time supporting Jeremy Corbyn and role fighting Brexit being dragged once more into the spotlight?
Nor would Starmer risk the accusation he was trying to bring us back, centimetre by centimetre, into the EU’s regulatory orbit. He knows, as Becket admits, that the borders of Brexit are rigorously patrolled by the Telegraph, Mail and Express papers.
Rishi Sunak has not spoken about Brexit since becoming PM. This doesn’t mean he sees no benefits in being outside the EU. A smart government, if we now have one, can move cautiously to revoke, change and modify EU regulations that impede competition, innovation and growth. As chancellor, Sunak has already taken some small steps to diverge from EU regulations.
The Tories new leader is also well-placed to tackle the agenda Francis Beckett recommends for improving trade and co-operation. Sunak doesn’t carry the baggage of the Brexit referendum that made Johnson so loathed among politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels. The end of the Johnson and Truss premierships should mean better relationships with the EU. That would be good news for both Brexiteers and Remainers.
Brian Morris is a media consultant and former TV current affairs producer