Written by 11:00 am Europe Economy

Brexit is irreversible – but we must forge stronger economic ties with the EU

Taking up his new position as UK Prime Minister last week, Rishi Sunak said he was committed to delivering on the 2019 manifesto and “building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit”.

A noble ambition, no doubt, if also a somewhat unremarkable one; this is after all only what he was elected to do. 

Yet he needs to get a move on – and indeed articulate precisely what those opportunities are – for six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, all we’ve got to show for it so far is political, economic and financial chaos.

From an economic perspective, there has been zero payback, and particularly in the area of international trade and reputation, considerable harm. 

Some of the more realistic architects of Brexit have admittedly partially acknowledged these downsides. Sunak has conceded that leaving the EU has been disruptive for trade, while Lord Frost, who negotiated the Withdrawal Agreement, insists that he always said there would be a cost. 

Nigel Farage likewise never sought to diminish the likelihood of economic impairment, but believed it would be a price worth paying for sovereignty, a view shared by many Brexiteers.

Also true is that it is virtually impossible to disentangle the negative economic effects of Brexit from the far more devastating, if time limited, consequences of lockdown and the current energy crisis. These latter implosions are global in nature, providing convenient cover for the politicians to hide behind. 

In doing so, they delude themselves over the scale of the challenge faced. 

There is a conspiracy of silence on these matters, for beyond flag waving patriotism, it is hard to point to really any form of economic gain that is both politically and fiscally deliverable. 

Liz Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng tried, and they lasted little more than a month.

Sometimes slowly but often in great leaps and bounds, many of those supposed Brexit opportunities are being abandoned or quietly shelved, the latest example being the promise to review or repeal all remaining 2,400 EU laws. 

On the campaign trail, Sunak said he would do this within his first 100 days in office, a pledge backed by a video of a man feeding the offending legislation into a shredder to the sound of Ode to Joy, the European anthem. 

It is as if much of what passed for government these past fifty years – a period that includes, by the way, twenty six years of Tory led government – counts for nothing. 

And I suppose that is indeed one way of looking at it. Yet meeting this ambition even by the end of next year, let alone the first 100 days, is now seemingly deemed too much of a stretch. There are more important things to worry about, apparently.

Out too goes fracking, much of the planned bonfire of red tape, and at least for now, any notion of a low tax economy. In terms of the broad envelope of policy, it’s increasingly difficult to see the difference between Sunak and Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition.

We’d hoped for a fresh start after the mayhem of Truss’s forty four days, but already the new prime minister seems more preoccupied with the internal struggles of his own party than delivering a nationally unifying plan that might plausibly get the country out of its mess.

Sunak’s Cabinet, supposedly bringing together all elements of the unruly coalition of interests and ideologies that is today’s Tory Party, only makes sense in terms of the sordid backroom deals needed to ensure the Prime Minister’s own coronation. 

Why else would you include the likes of Private Pike (aka Gavin Williamson) and the gloriously named Suella Braverman, whose protectionist instincts in the latter case seem diametrically opposed to the globalist, free trade ambitions of many of her colleagues? Do we want a free trade deal with India, or don’t we? In any case, it is very hard to see how this Cabinet can work in the cohesive way promised.

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