Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis. Three years on, with public support declining, there were no celebrations last week – only lies, excuses, and the usual cries of ‘betrayal’. Nothing new, but as time passes, the failure of the Brexit project is simply inescapable.
T his week saw the third anniversary of the UK’s departure from the EU, and with it a flurry of assessments and opinion polls. These broadly reflect what I have been recording for some time. The mounting evidence of, especially, economic damage coinciding as it does with the centrality of ‘the economy’ as a political issue has meant that Brexiters are gradually losing the battle for the narrative of whether Brexit has been a success or a failure.
Then and now
Because that has, indeed, happened gradually, it is worth standing back to see just how dramatic a loss that has been. On the day we left, the newspaper headlines included “Our Time Has Come” (The Sun), “A New Dawn For Britain” (Daily Mail) and “Yes We Did It!” (Daily Express). Yet the anniversary of this wonderful day of freedom and opportunity was not marked on the front pages of a single national newspaper, which instead carried stories of strikes, NHS chaos and the latest calamitous economic growth forecast from the IMF, predicting the UK to be the only major economy which will shrink this year.
Nor were crowds gathered in the city squares, town centres and village greens of Merrie England to celebrate the great liberation from the EU yoke. There was no bunting in the streets. No church bells rang. Some Brexiters did, it’s true, mark the date in fitting style. They did so by telling lies.
Most fittingly of all, they were led in this by Boris Johnson. For, as if in memory of those fabled lies of yore, such as ‘£350 million’ for the NHS and ‘Turkey is joining the EU’, he offered as ‘proof’ of the definitive triumph of Brexit the lie that it was what had enabled the early approval of the COVID vaccine. He then followed this up with the equally false claim that Brexit enabled the UK to give more robust support to Ukraine.
Whilst it is Johnson’s default mode to lie, whatever the topic may be, it is telling that in reaching for evidence of the success of Brexit there were no truthful examples available to him even if he were minded to tell the truth.
Thus even supposedly ‘reasonable’ Brexiters like the Times Iain Martin trotted out the vaccine and Ukraine nonsense, whilst giving as the “main advantage” of Brexit that it has removed the possibility of using the EU as a “convenient bogeyman” to blame for all Britain’s ills. But that is a preposterous line of reasoning since, prior to Brexit, the only people doing so were the tiny handful of Eurosceptic fanatics who regarded the EU as such a bogeyman and, anyway, Brexit has now created a much larger number of people blaming the EU for ‘punishing’ Britain and blaming Brexit not being done ‘properly’, thus creating a new scapegoat.
Indeed, despite having left the EU, some Brexiters continue to be obsessed with it, and seek to justify Brexit not so much for any positive virtues they suppose it to have but just in terms of EU-bashing. A typical example of this tedious ‘whataboutery’ is Sunday Telegraph Editor Allister Heath’s playground taunt that “we are in a mess but their mess is even greater”. And in the Mail, Daniel Johnson adds a dose of remainer-bashing in his childishly spiteful diatribe about the “gloating” of “privileged progressives who have time to work themselves into a Brexit tizz between sips of oat lattes” as a prelude to insisting that “it’s the EU that has failed the big tests” over the last three years.
It’s because of the absence of truthful or credible claims of Brexit benefits that pretty much all the Brexiters now rely on vague, and equally misleading, guff about ‘sovereignty’. But Brexit wasn’t sold to the public as an abstract proposition about sovereignty. To the extent it was sold on the basis of sovereignty at all, it was on promises of the great new future that this ‘taking back control’ would bring, and it has failed. At the very least it has failed to persuade the public that it has been a success, which is recognized by almost all Brexiters, albeit that they are responding in somewhat different ways.
The unholy Trinity of Brexit: denial, betrayal and victimhood
For example, all that is really acknowledged by Daniel Hannan, writing in the Washington Examiner, is that Brexit has lost the public relations battle – in other words, he fails to understand or to accept that this has happened because of the accumulating evidence of failure rather than despite its supposed success. “Britain is doing just fine”, he asserts on the basis of some cherry-picked statistics and the usual stale attempts to ascribe all Britain’s economic woes to COVID and the Ukraine War. Of course, this is not just stale, but silly and dishonest: every serious analysis of the economic effects of Brexit tries to disentangle them from these other factors. But for Hannan, it is just that “remainers” and “Europhiles”, who supposedly dominate the UK media, are determined to “discredit” Brexit. As for the similar commentary overseas, well, that he attributes to foreign analysts foolishly “falling for” British news reports.
However, most Brexiters have all but given up the absurd attempt to deny the substantive failure of Brexit. Instead, commentators like Camilla Tominey of the Sunday Telegraph attribute its failure to the government not having unleashed the ‘potential’ of Brexit. Similarly, on the Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast (which supposedly features “views from beyond the bubble” but in fact is as hermetically sealed as a diver’s suit), the paper’s Allison Pearson admits that “there really isn’t much reason to rejoice” but insists that is because “the government is obstructing the Brexit that we thought we were getting”. Likewise, a string of anniversary articles in the Express lashed out at the “socialist Tories” who, according to Richard Tice, “utterly failed” to make proper use of Brexit and, according to Nigel Farage, have “delivered nothing short of” – wait for it – “a betrayal” of Brexit.
Meanwhile, also in the Express, Mark Francois huffed and puffed that anyone unhappy with Brexit should blame – wait for it again – the “ardent remainers” in parliament who delayed Brexit “night after night”. He has apparently forgotten that the delays and endless votes he is referring to were principally caused by him and his fellow ‘Spartans’ refusing to vote for Theresa May’s deal on the basis that it wasn’t ‘true Brexit’. So, in his terms, the parliamentary delays should surely be seen as having helped rather than hindered his cause*.
So as always, and as from the very beginning, betrayal and victimhood are the dominant themes. Brexiters still seem to be unable to grasp that they will always, and were always going to, feel betrayed. Or, more likely, as I’ve argued many times before, they actually want and need to feel betrayed. It’s almost exhausting to keep recording the apparently inexhaustible well of bellicose self-pity.
The Brexit arm-wrestling contest
Since there’s absolutely nothing new in any of this, there’s little new to say about it. Although I often use the phrase ‘the battle for the narrative’, it is a misleading metaphor if it conjures up the image of a military campaign with offensives and counter-offensives, and evolving tactics and weaponry. It’s more like an arm-wrestling bout in being a continuous, grinding contest with little in the way of skill or innovation. In 2016, a complacent remain side was momentarily flipped over, and since then has gradually pushed back. The Brexit side is now straining, puce-faced, angry, but stubbornly determined to avoid the final humiliation of being completely discredited, and perhaps even vanquished. It’s an important contest, with much at stake, but as a spectator sport it’s less than riveting.
That said, this ongoing contestation is of interest simply because it is ongoing. Firstly, that shows the failure of Brexiters to convert their referendum victory into a stable consensus, or more accurately their refusal to even attempt to do so. Hannan expresses surprise and even bewilderment that the contest is still happening. It is “extraordinary”, he gasps, that “none of this is dying down”. Yet he and his fellow ideologues conspicuously fail to grasp why this is the case.
Central to that failure is that they still don’t understand the realities of what Brexit means. A particularly important example is that, like the ERG MPs, they still fail to understand why the Northern Ireland Protocol exists and why neither the EU nor, for that matter, the US are ever going to agree to abandon its core provisions. Underlying that is their refusal to understand why hard Brexit necessitated a border. So, just in that respect, let alone any others – deregulation, fishing quotas, gravity-defying trade patterns, border control, and all the other things they claim to have been bungled or compromised - there will never be the outcome they say is required for Brexit to be done and its ‘potentials’ realised.
As a result, they are doomed to conclude that Brexit isn’t working ‘as it should’ because it ‘hasn’t been done properly’ and that it hasn’t been done properly because it has been ‘betrayed’. Yet at the very same time they continue to be surprised that those who never supported it remain unpersuaded. That applies especially strongly to those, like Farage and Tice, who endlessly rant about how Brexit has been betrayed. There is an obvious contradiction, if not an impossibility, in simultaneously denouncing Brexit for not having delivered its promises and expecting those who always knew those promises were bogus to cease denouncing it. To put it another way, Brexit leaders and commentators can hardly tell leavers that they have been defrauded by Brexit and expect to convince remainers to get behind the very fraud they are complaining about.
The context of the coming election
The second reason why the ongoing contestation over Brexit is of interest is because, again simply by virtue of being ongoing, the context of it has changed. In particular, the debate about Brexit is now inseparable from the next General Election, and the, at least at present, languishing prospects of a Tory victory. The Brexiters are scared that, as a result, time is running out for them.
That inflects their position on things like, especially, the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, with the idea that this may be the last chance to embed de-alignment from the EU, and the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations. There are two aspects to this. One, for the true believers, is that they think that passing REUL Bill and achieving what they think is possible in terms of scrapping the Protocol or, if not, having a major conflict with the EU (and it looks as if they will have to decide which way to jump very soon) will help to protect the Tories from a resurgence of the Reform Party, potentially led again by Farage, and/or from high levels of abstaining from disaffected leave voters. It also undoubtedly underpins the central emphasis the Tories are placing on their ‘stop the boats’ message.
The other aspect is the Brexiters increasing fear of the Labour Party. Last week I commented positively on David Lammy’s speech, whilst recognizing that it wouldn’t go far enough to satisfy many erstwhile remainers. But what the latter should recognize is that, even if they don’t see Labour as offering a significant challenge to Brexit, the Brexiters most certainly do. Daniel Hannan, again, is a good example, in this case in his own Sunday Telegraph article where he argues that Re-joiners have a long-term strategy that begins with the kinds of closer ties that Labour are talking about, referring to Lammy’s speech as evidence. The plan, he thinks, is “to hold Britain in the EU’s regulatory orbit pending an attempt at re-entry”. From this perspective, too, passing the REUL Bill and resolving the NI Protocol on Tory terms is essential.
Whether this is indeed Labour’s secret intention is very much open to question, but it is at least possible, and it is even more possible that many re-joiners will vote Labour in the hope that it is, and push for it to become so. In fact, that’s pretty much the only voting strategy (along with the allied one of tactical voting, depending on constituency) for re-joiners to follow**. In this way, frustratingly cautious as it may be, Labour’s position on Brexit is beginning to look likely to pay dividends. Potentially, it enables three things: it gives re-joiners just about enough reason to hope voting Labour is a gateway to what they want, it gives softish remainers and softish leavers the hope that some of the harder edges can be sanded off Brexit or, at least, that unlike under the Tories there won’t be an even greater hardening, and it gives those still committed to leave the reassurance that re-joining isn’t Labour policy.
Clearly, the longer-term fate of such a position is deeply questionable. Apart from important questions about what the EU will and will not agree with a hypothetical Labour government, it is also possible that such a voting coalition will prove very unstable, with the very real chance that all of its segments will come to feel dissatisfied. But my point is just about the next election. That election won’t be solely determined by Brexit, of course, but, to the extent Brexit is a factor, it will weigh heavily on the Tories. For they will be vulnerable to Labour from those who never wanted Brexit, and from those who wanted it or could live with it but think it has been done in too ‘hard’ a way, and to the Reform Party or abstentions from those who want and still want it but think it has been done in too ‘soft’ a way.
This potential electoral vice is really just a version of the earlier point that Brexiters have shot themselves in the foot by their own repeated insistence that Brexit has been betrayed by the Tory government, giving neither those who wanted it nor those who didn’t any reason, at least on Brexit grounds, to vote Tory. And that itself is really only a version of what has been obvious about Brexit from the beginning – that its fantastical and dishonest claims were bound to fail, and therefore bound to antagonize most remainers and at least some, and probably many, leave voters. That was inherent in Brexit and compounded by the ways it was undertaken, and since it was undertaken by the Tories it is they who will suffer most, electorally.
The Political Editor of UnHerd, Tom McTague, comes to similar conclusions about Labour’s Brexit position, writing last week that Labour “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 re-join the EU”. McTague’s analysis is well worth reading, but the main way mine differs from his is that, at least on my reading, he thinks that, had the Tory Party proceeded differently, it need not have “lost its grip on the revolution”. I think it was always doomed to fail, though I don’t pretend to have known how that failure would play out (nor do I know how it will do in the future).
The key issue: public opinion
But in a way, that difference doesn’t matter. What matters now is what underlies all of the commentary from every point on the Brexit spectrum, and that is the opinion polling. The headline polls continue to show a very clear view that Britain was wrong to leave the EU (54%) rather than right (34%). Digging beneath that reveals a fascinating array of issues, of which perhaps the most important (though also most predictable) is the demographics of opposition to Brexit. Opinion polls also show a clear lead for re-joining the EU if there were another referendum (by 63% to 37%, though note this excludes ‘don’t knows’). That doesn’t mean that another referendum is in the offing, or that this would be the result (or that the EU would re-admit us), but it does show just how comprehensively Brexit has failed in the estimation of the public.
By far the most dramatic illustration of that is the new FocalData study (upon which McTague’s article is a commentary). This maps opinions dis/agreement about whether or not it was “wrong to leave the EU” on to individual parliamentary constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. Staggeringly, it finds that there is just a single constituency (Boston & Skegness) where the score for ‘disagree it was wrong’ is higher than for ‘agree it was wrong’. Even there, a constituency where 76% voted to leave, it is close (41% disagree it was wrong, 37% agree). There are also two other constituencies in Lincolnshire, both immediately adjacent to Boston & Skegness, where opinion is tied (41% agree, 41% disagree). But in every single other constituency bar those three, ‘agree it was wrong to leave’ beats disagree, at the greatest by 69% to 13% in Bristol West.
Of course, as ever, there is a need for caution. Agreeing that it was wrong to leave undoubtedly contains or conceals a wide range of opinions about why that was so. For example, the data show 29% of Reform Party supporters being of that view, but many of them will mean by this that Brexit hasn’t been done properly rather than that it shouldn’t have been done at all. So it doesn’t in itself translate into support for re-joining the EU, or for softening Brexit. Equally, as with the population-level data, there are a lot of people who think ‘neither’ or ‘don’t know’ – 23% in Boston and 17% even in Bristol West. It may be somewhat surprising that after all this time these numbers should be so large, but it is important in considering how future opinion polls, let alone a vote on re-joining, might change. And it’s also worth looking at the balance between those who ‘strongly’ or ‘mildly’ dis/agree in each constituency.
Brexit’s utter failure
Yet even with these caveats this is a remarkable testimony to the utter failure of Brexit itself, and of the Brexiters failure to turn their 2016 victory into a durable consensus. Ian Dunt, one of the best analysts of the entire Brexit saga, believes that “someday soon, probably not more than a few years from now, it will be hard to even find people who admit to ever having supported it in the first place”.
Even without that happening, just the current level of ‘Bregret’ begs a question. Given that amongst leave voters who now think Brexit was a mistake there must be considerable numbers who mean not just that it wasn’t done ‘properly’ but that it was wrong in principle, it must surely be the case that at least one of those Brexiters who led the campaign to leave is also of that view.
Yet, so far as I know, not a single high-profile Brexiter has publicly said such a thing. Will any of them ever have the courage and honesty to do so? Or will they continue to chunter on that all would have been well had true Brexit been delivered, even as historians begin to write epitaphs to their lies and hubris? Will they go to the grave unrepentant, even as the ashes of their failed project are scattered to the winds?
(*) It’s also worth recalling that the Meaningful Votes in 2018 and 2019 that allowed Francois and his fellow Brexit Ultras to put paid to May’s deal only occurred because, back in 2017, Tory ‘remainer’ rebels forced this on the government. At the time the Ultras pilloried the rebels for this, denouncing it as an attempt to sabotage Brexit, only later to use it to defeat the government.
(**) By that, I mean re-joiners who want the UK to re-join the EU. Obviously, those who want, for a particular example, Scotland to leave the UK and re-join the EU as an independent state would presumably make a different calculation.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 9 February 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Adobe Stock/Andreas Gruhl.