The chaotic emergence of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s new prime minister signals the end not of Brexit but of Brexitism — the ideology of delusions about Britain’s ability to go it alone that culminated in the world-beating farce of Liz Truss’s short-lived government.
Trussonomics took the logic of Brexitism to an absurd extreme, with predictable results. Over the last eight years, under this Conservative Party, Britain has descended from the pragmatic Eurosceptism of David Cameron to the medium-soft Brexit proposed by Theresa May, to the hard Brexit of Boris Johnson, and, thence, to the fantasy Brexit of Truss. The Brexit revolution has followed the familiar pattern of revolutions, except that whereas traditionally the ‘revolution devouring its children’ has involved radicalisation towards the left (Girondins to Jacobins in the French Revolution, Mensheviks to Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution), here, it has been radicalisation towards the right.
“We set out a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit,” Truss said in her resignation statement. This vision was a delusion: slash taxes, make a bonfire of regulations, incentivise the rich and, somehow miraculously, Britain will be back to the magnificent dynamism of the 19th century. The rest of the world should believe this because we believe it. A journey that began with the slogan, ‘take back control’, ended with the most spectacular loss of control.
Reality has caught up with the Brexitists and the British public is beginning to catch up with reality. If there were a general election tomorrow, and people voted as they currently tell the pollsters, the Tories would be virtually wiped out. Even more tellingly, the residual belief in Brexit amongst those who voted for it, which held up for many years, seems to have snapped. In a recent YouGov poll, only 34% of those asked said Britain was right to leave the EU, while 54% said it was wrong.
Of course, not all of Britain’s economic woes are due to Brexit. Even before the 2016 vote, the country had a chronic productivity problem, excessive reliance on the financial sector, and a major deficit in training and skills. But as the Covid pandemic effect fades, we can see the Brexit effect more clearly. On many indicators, such as business investment and trade recovery after Covid, the United Kingdom’s economy has done worse than any other in the G7. The number of small companies with cross-channel relationships has fallen by about a third. On official projections, the country will lose around 4% of its GDP as a result of Brexit. The rating agencies, Moody’s and S&P, have both reduced the UK’s economic outlook from “stable” to “negative”. Yes, it’s the Brexit, stupid.
Sunak is anything but a convinced European. The axis of his world is Silicon Valley-LondonMumbai not London-Paris-Berlin. In 2016, he was a strong Brexiter. But if he ever shared some of the delusions of Brexitism, he has surely lost them by now. As he demonstrated in his Conservative Party leadership contest with Truss this summer, he is a realist, putting solid public finances and market credibility first — as did Margaret Thatcher. And realism demands that in extraordinarily challenging economic circumstances, you have to lower barriers to doing business with your largest single market (the EU), not further increase them.
There will be two immediate tests. One is well known: the Northern Ireland protocol. This is not only a difficult issue in itself but the stalemate over Northern Ireland is also blocking progress on other fronts, such as Britain re-entering the Horizon Europe programme for scientific cooperation. The second test has been less widely noticed. Under the May government, all existing EU regulations were retained in British law unless individual regulations were explicitly replaced by new national ones. Under the Truss fantasy, a bill has been introduced that will make a bonfire of all existing EU-origin regulations by the end of 2023. Departments have to make a special case for retaining each one of more than 2,400 regulations or replacing them individually with new national rules. If Sunak is serious about concentrating on what really matters for the British economy, he will throw out this crazy bill and start again.
Economically competent and realistic Sunak himself may be, but he will be governing with a chronically divided party at his back. The ideologues of Brexitism are still there in strength. In the name of party unity, he will probably have to take some of them into his Cabinet. If British democracy worked like most other major Western democracies, the country would now have either a general election or a ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’, bringing other parties into power. But it doesn’t. The Tories still have a large majority in Parliament. Since on current polling, most Conservative MPs would lose their seats in an election, the turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas. Yet, such is the anger and dissension inside the parliamentary party, and so serious is the economic crisis, that Britain may yet tumble into a general election before 2024.
Whenever the election comes, the British electorate will almost certainly, in traditional fashion, ‘kick the bast**** out’ — ‘bast****’ here being an entirely non-partisan term — and elect a government of the moderate centre-left. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is being excessively cautious on Europe, for fear of failing to win back northern English voters who switched to supporting Johnson so as to ‘get Brexit done’. He keeps parroting ‘make Brexit work!’ — a terrible slogan which implies that the only thing wrong with Brexit is that it hasn’t been made to work properly. As public opinion is clearly shifting, he should start by changing it to ‘make Britain work!’ (in spite of Brexit, that is.)
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. A day in British politics is currently a long time. But the direction of travel is clear. Britain has at last begun its long, painful journey back from the delusions of Brexitism.
Timothy Garton Ash’s new book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, will be published next spring