Brexit has failed to secure public support for its current form, with the latest opinion poll showing roughly half of the population would vote to rejoin the EU, and a clear majority thinks it was a mistake to leave the EU. There is almost no political consensus about the reasons for the failure or rejoining the EU. The leaders of the two main parties are committed to different versions of how to remediate the failures of Brexit.
T he most striking thing about Brexit is that, as many of them now accept, the Brexiters have failed to secure public support for actual Brexit – that is, the form of Brexit that exists. Indeed, some of the most committed Brexiters, including Nigel Farage, regard actual Brexit as having been a failure. But if actual Brexit has few defenders, every alternative to it has highly vocal attackers.
“One piece of evidence of failure [of Brexit] would be if we are still debating this in five- or six-years’ time in the same way. I think [if] it is to succeed it needs to settle in the British polity.”
That was in June 2022, and over a year later there’s every sign that this test of failure is going to be met. It has not ‘settled in the British polity’, not least so far as public opinion is concerned.
Thus, the latest opinion poll (p.9 of report accessible via link) shows 49% would vote to rejoin, 38% to stay out, 7% don’t know and 5% would not vote. With the odd outlier, that has been pretty much what the polls have shown for two years now. Meanwhile, on the slightly different question of whether it was right or wrong to leave the EU, the latest poll shows 56% think it was a mistake to leave and just 32% that it was right (with 12% don’t knows), a lead for ‘mistake’ which has been slowly but steadily growing for the last two years. These polls are all the more remarkable given how little mainstream political support there has been to rejoin the EU, and the extent to which the pro-Brexit media have trumpeted the supposed success of Brexit.
But if there is something like a consensus that Brexit has failed, and a strong, though not overwhelming, degree of public support for rejoining as the solution, there’s almost no political consensus about the reasons for the failure and even less for rejoining being the solution. In particular, the leaders of the two main parties are committed to slightly, though, as I argued in last week’s piece, genuinely, different versions of how the failures of actual Brexit can be remedied without fundamentally changing its institutional form, let alone rejoining the EU.
I say ‘the leaders of the two main parties’ because it is very clear that, within the Tory Party, there are many powerful groups, including most of its rank-and-file membership, which want a radically different, and much ‘harder’, policy than Sunak’s ad hoc fixes of aspects within the current Brexit. It’s not even as if the most important of those fixes, the Windsor Framework, can be seen to have ‘settled’, in that it is still strongly opposed by Northern Irish unionists and many Brexiters and, anyway, has yet to be implemented.
Likewise, although perhaps less vocal, there are many in the Labour Party, and especially in its own rank-and-file, who would like something much softer, up to and including rejoining the EU, than Starmer’s more comprehensive softening of the current Brexit. For example, it is telling that Gordon Brown, whilst endorsing Starmer’s approach, advocates ultimately seeking to rejoin the EU. In this sense, the difference between the two parties’ approaches is greater than it appears on paper. For, behind it, lie much bigger differences in where the internal pressure on the leaders is pushing them.
Overall, having once been touted as a solution to Britain’s problems, actual Brexit is now almost universally understood in the commentary upon it to be a problem in need of a solution. However, since neither main party can explicitly, and certainly not fully, acknowledge this, their proposals are to different degrees anaemic. It’s difficult to think of any other issue in modern British political history, especially an issue of the magnitude of Brexit, where the substantive discussions occur to so great an extent outside formal politics. It’s almost the opposite of the way that, in the 2017-2019 period, the chaos and division in parliament very much represented that within the country. Now, such parliamentary debate about Brexit as occurs is a pale imitation of the wider discussions.
One such discussion concerns the plan, floated in an academic report commissioned by the French and German governments, for forms of EU associate membership that could include the UK. In effect, this would be a form of soft Brexit and could include single market membership. Although, as I noted last week, a Labour spokesperson immediately dismissed it, it has found considerable support within the business community, which may well continue to pressure a future Labour government to at least give it serious consideration.
As for the Brexit commentariat, a common reaction was that this suggestion had come too late, and should have been made before the referendum. So said Patrick O’Flynn in the Spectator, Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph and Roger Bootle, also in the Telegraph. The latter two, at least, seem to think that, prior to the referendum this would have been an acceptable outcome, but all three are adamant that it would no longer be so, although the arguments they advance for that – mainly about the UK being a ‘rule-taker’ – don’t really explain why, if that would have been acceptable before it has ceased to be. Indeed, if anything, that argument (which in any case somewhat understated the influence that, say, Norway has over single market rules) now looks weaker as, in practice, we have seen that hard Brexit in many ways makes the UK a de facto rule taker because of the impracticality of divergence.
In any case, it is disingenuous to say the idea has come too late, as it was floated several times in the years before the referendum, including in 2012, when some Brexiters (as we would now call them) dismissed it as a “Brussels plot to make Britain a second-class member”. It’s true that others of them welcomed it, and it’s also true that some Brexiters, including Hannan, advocated soft Brexit during the Referendum campaign (he even claimed, mendaciously, that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”, when clearly many were). But it is misleading to suggest, as Hannan does, that this outcome was lost because the EU refused it (it was, after all, one, or depending how defined, three of the steps on the ‘Barnier staircase’ of Brexit options) or that it was simply down to Theresa May’s hostility to immigration.
Actually, it happened because ‘liberal Brexiters’ like Hannan hitched themselves to the hard Brexiters, knowing that their promotion of Brexit in order to end freedom movement of people was necessary to win the vote to leave. Then, afterwards, and without much opposition from the ‘liberal Brexiters', the hard Brexiters successfully bulldozed the idea that only leaving the single market would be ‘true Brexit’, enabled by May and her advisers, especially Nick Timothy.
Whilst this is now in some ways ancient history, it remains very much alive given the re-emergence of discussion of an associate membership model, in the new context of EU debates about enlargement. Equally, it remains alive for the UK given dissatisfaction with Brexit, and might well be the basis for public consensus. After all, not only do the articles mentioned provide no obvious reason why ‘soft Brexiters’ should not, now, support such a model given that they did before, they also acknowledge that it would have an appeal to some, probably many, remainers. And whilst O’Flynn claims “it would settle nothing and satisfy almost no one politically” he gives no real explanation of why that might so, whilst ignoring the fact that the same could certainly be said of the current situation.
Arguably, some form of soft Brexit would have been the most logical and consensual way of delivering the close Referendum result, given that it had happened, and the associate membership version of it would surely be a more logical position for a Labour government, inheriting a desperate economic situation and unburdened by the Tories’ fetishization of divergence from the EU at all costs. If Starmer’s fear is that it would mean freedom of movement of people then, apart from the fact that the UK continues to suffer serious labour shortages as a result of Brexit, those for whom the allure of hard Brexit was reducing immigration must surely by now to have realized that, for good reasons, that has not been its effect. Moreover, given that Labour recognize the need for a mobility agreement for travelling performers, there’s no real logic to refuse to see the damage that ending free movement has done more generally.
In fact, the main argument for a Labour government not to pursue associate membership (acknowledging that, as things stand, it is only an idea, not something that is on offer from the EU) is the possibility that it would be reversed by a future Tory government, making it harder to negotiate with the EU. For what very little it is worth, my guess is that something like associate membership is probably where both parties will settle within about ten years and, then, it will become the UK’s settled position in the EU.
The National Rejoin March
The unsettled nature of Brexit was illustrated by, as well as being the background to, last Saturday’s National Rejoin March, apparently, and if so shamefully, not reported by the BBC. Predictably, it was mocked by GB News as an “epic failure” on the basis that it had only attracted 5000 people, which, taken in conjunction with the Brexiters insistence that ‘the elite’ are on the point of rejoining, provides a fresh illustration of populists’ proclivity to depict their enemies as both hopelessly feeble and threateningly potent.
Actually, the march organizers claimed the police estimate to be over 20,000 which would be quite impressive, but even 5,000 would have been a decent number. Any demonstration only mobilises a small fraction of those who support its cause, and that’s especially so when there is no current, live proposal on that cause, in this case to rejoin the EU, let alone a decision point on such a proposal. So the march was bound to be attended only by the hard core of the hard core of rejoin campaigners.
As such, it was fronted by some familiar figures. Without any disrespect to them, eventually a successful campaign will need both different and more high-profile figureheads, as Nick Tyrone argues in the Spectator, including a high-profile ex-Brexiter if one could be found. I don’t, though, think Tyrone is right to propose veterans like Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine as alternatives; better would be people who hold, or might reach, the levers of conventional political power. It will also need a more pro-active and forward-looking message than ‘reversing Brexit’.
But that’s for the future. For now, what’s most important, even speaking as someone who thinks any prospect of rejoining is a long way off (or perhaps especially because I think that), is for that hard core of campaigners simply to ‘keep the dream alive’. The Brexiters of GB News and elsewhere should be wary of mocking that. In the years before Brexit, their ‘dream’ of leaving was similarly only the passion of a hard core and, unlike that dream, the rejoin cause not only has a far clearer level of support in the opinion polls, it also has demographics on its side.
Brexit: Unsettled and still not settleable.
Rejoining and electoral politics
However, the current rejoin movement does differ from what became the Brexit movement in its relationship with political parties. It has no equivalent of UKIP, and there’s little sign of one developing. That seems wise, for two reasons. Firstly, whereas UKIP, ironically, was able to parasitically exploit proportional representation in the European Parliamentary elections to secure itself representation and legitimacy, this is obviously no longer open to a hypothetical rejoin party. Secondly, both for that reason and more generally, UKIP operated by pressurizing the Tory Party from the outside towards ‘Euroscepticism’ and, eventually, to hold the referendum. But, currently, partly because Brexit is not the only issue at stake, even for many rejoiners, such a tactic applied to pressurize the Labour Party, or even the LibDems, would carry what for many would be the unconscionable risk of enabling a Tory government, and very likely make any path to rejoining even longer, and to make Brexit even more damaging in the meantime.
The latter issue also makes life complicated for the individual voting decisions of rejoiners. There really isn’t much choice outside Scotland, where the SNP has a rejoin policy, although, naturally, that is very much a policy for Scotland joining the EU after gaining independence from the UK*. That lack of choice is partly for all the familiar reasons of the First Past the Post system, and the limitations that imposes even on tactical voting in many constituencies. But those reasons are compounded by the fact that no major party, even if the Greens are included amongst them, is offering a ‘rejoin now’ policy, although in Wales Plaid Cymru has a policy to rejoin the single market (I think, but may be wrong, without delay). Labour’s position, discussed in my previous post, is at least currently opposed to ever rejoining, whilst the LibDems offer is ‘one day, but not now’.
So all that rejoiners really have as an option at the coming election is voting against the Tories, whatever the most effective way of doing that may mean in individual constituencies, on the basis that their Brexit position is the worst of the lot, and that the other parties might, in the future and with pressure, become closer to, or even come to embrace, rejoining. Not voting at all, or voting for a very fringe party that does support rejoin, might feel principled, but in practical terms just leaves it to others to decide what happens. And, beyond all that, rejoiners need to recognize that influencing UK policy is all they can do, and that is only one side of the equation because, of course, ultimately rejoining could only happen with the agreement of the EU and its members.
What should rejoiners do now?
One of the benefits of having re-opened comments on this blog, is that it enables me to respond to queries or even to requests for topics to be covered in posts. Last week, commenter Vivienne Pay asked for my “thoughts on what an active campaign movement to rejoin should look like to be effective”. I’m not the best person to answer, because I’m an analyst more than a campaigner and because, as noted above, I’m fairly cautious about the prospects for rejoining. I also suspect that some of my thoughts will be unpopular with some readers. But, for what little they may be worth, here they are:
- Keep going. Whether rejoin is an immediate or, as I think, long prospect, it will only happen if there is pressure for it, and the more pressure there is the more likely it becomes. At the same time, recognize that it is going to be a long haul
- Keep pointing to the failures of Brexit. That may be negative, and, ultimately, the campaign case for rejoining needs to be positive, but we are not in that campaign yet. Although public opinion may have turned against Brexit to keep it that way, and to harden and extend it, the message of its failure, and of the failed promises made for it, still needs to be communicated. That doesn’t, of course, preclude also pointing to the positive advantages of membership which, in many cases, will be the flip-side of the negatives of Brexit anyway.
- Be prepared for support for rejoin and opposition to Brexit to fluctuate in the opinion polls, especially to the extent that they are bound up with the current unpopularity of the Tories and the current cost-of-living crisis. Opinion polls matter hugely, but they’re not, in themselves, a reason to argue for or against rejoining. The case for doing so would be the same, even if it had less support. Equally, the current polls are by no means overwhelming, and public support for rejoining shouldn’t be over-stated or taken for granted.
- React positively to leave voters who openly express regret. Their votes will be needed, and the more who publicly recant without being pilloried, the more likely it is that their numbers will grow. Even saying ‘I told you so’, whilst hugely tempting, is self-indulgent and counter-productive.
- Ignore getting tangled in issues about whether rejoining means joining the Euro, or Schengen, or what it would means for budget contributions. For one thing, it’s too early to know what it means. For another, it risks getting drawn into the old transactional mentality of ‘what do we put in’ and the old Eurosceptic mentality of ‘what can we get out of’ that blighted our original membership.
- More generally, configure the issue as ‘joining’ rather than ‘rejoining’: it’s about the future, not resurrecting the past. Both the UK and the EU will be different.
- Keep banging on about the 2016 Referendum having ‘only been advisory’. It was always a politically meaningless argument, and after the Article 50 vote in parliament it was legally meaningless, too. It’s backward-looking, and just feeds the Brexiter narrative of remainers ‘refusing to accept the result’. If you don’t agree, just try to imagine who on earth is going to hear you say it for the umpteenth time and suddenly think ‘oh, well, in that case I think we should rejoin’. The answer is literally no one.
- Keep banging on about how ‘only 37% of the electorate voted for it in 2016’. That, too, was always a pointless argument - votes are decided by those who vote. Again, if you don’t agree, ask yourself the question who is going to hear you say it for the umpteenth time and suddenly think ‘oh, well, in that case I think we should rejoin’? Again, the answer is no one.
- Assume that individual EU politicians saying that the UK is welcome back any time it is ready is the same as that being the position of the EU or its members. Think instead about making the case for why the rejoining could be made more attractive to the EU (this point is developed in some detail by Niall Ó Conghaile in East Anglia Bylines). Don’t repeat the Brexiters’ mistake of seeing everything in terms of UK politics and UK needs, or of assuming that the UK knows ‘what is in the EU’s best interest’.
- Dismiss any progress short of rejoining as a waste of time. Even if the immediate practical benefits are tiny, they are better than measures which do even more harm, and simply repairing the damage to the UK’s reputation and trustworthiness in the EU is helpful and will take time – and will be one pre-requisite of making any UK application to join appealing to the EU.
How the rejoin movement conducts itself, and how it develops, will be one factor in what happens with Brexit. The outcome of the next election will be another. Ultimately, Brexit will not ‘settle’ until there is a durable political and public consensus, and the leadership to deliver that consensus, whether it be for some version of hard Brexit, for some version of soft Brexit – perhaps in some form of associate membership – or for rejoining, whether fully or in a different form of associate membership.
The situation we face seems to be far better understood abroad than here. If Brexiters’ really had global vision, as opposed to a hubristic vision of Global Britain, they might be aware of the withering way Brexit is now reported in India (“Brexit: Fatal for Britain?”), China (“UK public realizes Brexit folly, but return to EU not so easy”) or the United States (“In the UK, a disaster no one wants to talk about”). Notably, all these reports concern the disjuncture between, on the one hand, the effects of Brexit and the public view of it and, on the other, the politics of Brexit.
Indeed, what seems so obvious from abroad, and to many at home, is still barely hinted at within formal politics. Some of that is fear of leave voters, of whom there are still many. Some of it is fear of reviving the political toxicity of Brexit, though that is probably more specifically fear of the pro-Brexit media. In fact, though it is a topic for another day, the nature of the British media is perhaps the single biggest cause of the current Brexit impasse. That’s not because the media are all-powerful. It hasn’t stopped the British people coming to the view that Brexit has failed. But it is certainly one of the reasons why so many politicians are too scared to say that out loud, and to propose – or even debate – genuine solutions.
(*It’s not clear to me, and I would be happy to be enlightened, what the SNP view would be of the UK rejoining the EU. Would it welcome and support that, on the basis that Scotland never wanted to leave? Or see it as taking away a potent argument for Scottish independence from the UK?)