THere’s a wonderful moment in one of the greats Fast show Sketches when, within seconds, the George Smiley-esque interrogator raises his hand in triumph because the prisoner has given himself away – screwed up, as they say. One such moment came last week when Rishi Sunak, in his commendable efforts to resolve the Northern Ireland issue, told the province how fortunate it was to be in both the single European market and the UK.
I don’t want to push the comparison too far, but it’s certainly true that prior to the euphoria that accompanied the Windsor framework, the Prime Minister looked like a prisoner of the right-wing European Research Group (ERG), which is in cahoots with the Democrats Unionist Party (DUP).
There is much speculation that he still is, despite all the triumphalists and the splits in the ranks of some former hardliners. (More of that later.)
His words about the wonders of Single Market membership will certainly not have reassured Brexit hardliners, but they are music to the ears of returnees like your correspondent. In a reasonable and overwhelmingly obvious observation, Sunak, himself a Brexiteer, has inflated the case for Brexit. This should be a moment for the Rejoin campaign to reinvigorate and forget all that “it’ll be years” pessimism.
That it will take a long time is the depressing conclusion of an excellent analysis by Sam Freedman of the Institute for Government entitled – not depressingly – Getting Brexit Undone. Freedman stresses how the now widespread recognition that Brexit is a disaster has fundamentally changed voter sentiment and “leaves the main parties in a bind”.
Although 54% of YouGov respondents say it was wrong to leave the EU and just 34% say it was right, he says “both government and opposition are conscientiously and understandably ignoring this shift in opinion”.
Now, I’m not personally sure about the “understandable” way. But Freeman concludes: “I don’t know if Britain will ever officially rejoin the EU, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t have a dramatically changed relationship within a decade, and that could well include de factounless de jureMembership in the Single Market.”
Wait a moment. Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator, said the door was open Now. And as Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s former Brexit negotiator, said of Sunak’s remark that there are still open questions about Brexit: “Yes – reversing it.”
The ghost of Boris Johnson hovers over it. As classical scholar and essayist Harry Eyres wrote in The New statesmanJohnson “believes he is Winston Churchill reincarnated”. In fact, says Eyres, “he resembles much more a political figure from an earlier era, the charismatic Athenian chancellor Alcibiades… serial traitor”. As he notes: “Plutarch reports that the misanthrope Timon said to Alcibiades: ‘Go on, my son, and increase the credit of men, for you will bring them enough misfortune one day.'”
Brexit Is an accident. There were many lying culprits – and there still are – but the key swing voter was Boris Johnson, who appears to be lying in wait to try to overthrow the Prime Minister.
But mercifully, Sunak gave away the game in his encouragement to the Northern Irish to accept his deal. It is now up to the opposition leader to take up the gauntlet. No re-entry into the customs union or the single market? come away The political pages have been full of late as Keir Starmer has effortlessly scrapped previous commitments. It is time the Labor leader accepted that he was right all along to be a stayer and is ready to exercise real leadership and offer to steer this country in the right direction.
One reads day after day in the financial times and elsewhere by big investment decisions by companies who have doubts about choosing the UK as their location because of, yes, Brexit.
I had many criticisms of Thatcherism and its impact on unemployment and social harmony, but one thing Margaret Thatcher got right was the importance of the single market and the attraction of Japanese, German and other firms to Britain. All of this is now available to Starmer and his team.
Let’s end this week with a little Labor history. Like Starmer today, Harold Wilson had ambitious growth plans in 1964. The Labor government of 1964-70 was hampered in its ambitions by a lack of international competitiveness due to an overvalued pound and a refusal to devalue until markets forced issuance in 1967. This limited the scope of the National Plan. Starmer’s ambition for the fastest growth in the G7 is a tall order in itself, but will be even more difficult to achieve unless he seizes opportunities to re-enter the customs union and single market.