Stephen Booth is an international policy analyst political commentator.
As we enter the New Year and slowly edge towards the next general election, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have begun to set out their respective stalls to the country. It is clear from both leaders’ New Year speeches that Brexit in the narrow sense – the UK’s relationship with the EU – is no longer considered to be an electoral issue for either leader.
In the summer of 2022, Starmer clearly stated that, under a Labour government, “Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.” He also ruled out returning to free movement, adding, “We will use our flexibility outside of the EU to ensure British regulation is adapted to suit British needs.” Labour is also committed to completing new trade deals.
There are differences in how both parties would approach important details. For example, the Labour Party has said it would be willing to align with EU veterinary standards and regulations in order to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, whereas the Government wishes to negotiate new derivations and methods of cooperation to remove the Irish Sea border.
Indeed, this week provided some grounds for cautious optimism in the UK-EU negotiations over Northern Ireland. Both sides announced a provisional deal that would give Brussels access to the UK’s IT systems for trade across the Irish Sea, which would enable both sides to monitor any UK goods erroneously or illicitly entering the EU’s Single Market via Northern Ireland. This suggests a more constructive dialogue on a broader agreement as we approach the symbolic 10 April deadline of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement – and things could move quickly in the coming weeks.
Nevertheless, after years of bitter wrangling, there is, for now, a degree of cross-party consensus on the future of the UK’s economic relationship with the EU. This is important progress towards the UK becoming at ease with itself outside the EU.
On the global stage, the UK has found the transition relatively easy. The response to the war in Ukraine has underlined the UK’s continued value and commitment to European and transatlantic security. Meanwhile, the ongoing tilt to the Indo-Pacific promises deeper economic and security relationships with allies such as Japan, with which the UK yesterday signed a new defence agreement.
It is in the domestic arena where the UK has yet to find the answers to the fault lines exposed by the Brexit realignment. The electoral coalition that delivered Brexit at the 2019 general election straddled those in favour of free markets and smaller government, on the one hand, and those supporting greater state intervention, backed by greater public spending, on the other, and a range of views in between. At some point, the penny had to drop that this political Neverland could not continue indefinitely.
Meanwhile, we have also seen how Brexit has removed the political guardrails. From renationalisation of the energy and train companies to a bonfire of environmental and employment regulations, taking back control from Brussels has opened a new range of possibilities that were off the menu while Westminster was constrained by membership of the EU.
In the period since the referendum, both parties have experimented with this freedom to indulge ideological prejudices which, before 2016, would have previously been viewed as caricatures of the Left and Right. Corbynomics was tested at the ballot box twice. The Truss administration’s mishandling of the public finances meant that Trussonomics’ mooted radical supply-side agenda – for which the public had never been prepared – was jettisoned before contact with the electorate.
The contest between Sunak and Starmer promises a more sober political debate. The Prime Minister’s five pledges – on falling inflation, boosting growth, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists, and stopping the small boats – lay out the political battleground amid the immediate economic challenges of fighting inflation and a potential recession.
In the real world, reducing debt at the same time as meeting the pressures of an ageing society and the public’s demand for investment in public services limits much room for fiscal manoeuvre. Starmer has pledged that his party will not be “getting its big government cheque-book out”.
When it comes to improving economic growth, the question is one of delivery, priorities, and credibility. In this context, the decision to continue with the plan to simultaneously sunset thousands of EU regulations by the end of 2023 – under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill inherited from the Truss regime – unhelpfully suggests that the Conservative Party continues to prioritise Brexit symbolism over practical government. Clearly, there are EU regulations that should be repealed or amended. But this should not be done in haste and without regard to a wider framework for regulatory reform, which focusses on equipping the UK economy for the growth industries of the future.
In 2019, levelling up was correctly pitched as the major domestic policy response to Brexit. However, under Boris Johnson, government pledges to regenerate certain regions of the country had a whiff of the pork-barrel, and the government has yet to present a coherent vision that marries regional economic policy and democratic localism – the devolution of fiscal responsibility and accountability. It was notable that in his New Year’s speech Starmer chose to co-opt the language of the Leave campaign – “Take Back Control” – when setting out his agenda for devolution. The Conservatives cannot afford for this to become an issue where Labour take the intellectual lead.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s pledge to “stop the boats” appears to be a hostage to fortune, since so much of the answer is out of the Government’s control – particularly securing the cooperation of the French. It also risks confusing the government’s record on illegal immigration with legal immigration, which is economically beneficial given the labour supply constraints we are experiencing.
Immigration dominated political debate before and after the referendum. However, despite continuing high numbers of arrivals, public attitudes on immigration have softened significantly now that the UK is able to devise its own policy – this is a significant Brexit success story the Government seems too embarrassed to talk about for fear of enraging the right.
An election likely remains over a year away and, despite the current polls, all is still to play for. For too long, too many have indulged in the fantasy that Brexit was the answer or the cause of all our problems. Hopefully, 2023 is the year we can finally move on to debating what Brexit means in the broader and more important sense.