It’s the start of the Sunak era and the end of Britain’s ‘Brexitist’ delusions | International
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The chaotic rise of Rishi Sunak as the new British Prime Minister marks 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-class charade of the short-lived Liz Truss.
Truss’s economic policy took the logic of Brexitism to an absurd extreme, with predictable results. Over the last eight years, with this Conservative party, Britain has descended from David Cameron’s pragmatic Euroscepticism to Theresa May’s medium-soft Brexit, then to Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, and from there to Truss’s fanciful Brexit. The Brexit revolution has followed a familiar pattern, except that, while traditionally the “revolution that devours its children” has involved radicalization to the left (from the Girondins to the Jacobins in the French Revolution, from the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks in in the Russian Revolution), here the radicalization has been to the right.
“We set out an approach to a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit,” Truss said in her resignation statement. This approach was wishful thinking: cut taxes, ignite European regulations, incentivize the rich, and somehow, miraculously, Britain would return to the magnificent dynamism of the 19th century. The rest of the world will have to believe it because we believe it. Instead, a journey that began with the slogan “take back control” ended in the most spectacular loss of control.
Reality has caught up with the Brexiteers and British public opinion is beginning to accept reality. If there was a general election tomorrow, and people voted according to what they currently tell the interviewers, the Tories They would practically disappear. And what is more revealing, the residual belief in the Brexit among those who voted in favour, which held for many years, seems to have broken down. In a recent YouGov poll, only 34% of those interviewed said Britain was right to leave the EU, while 54% said it was a mistake.
Of course, not all of Britain’s economic woes are due to Brexit. Even before the 2016 vote, the country suffered from a chronic productivity problem, an over-reliance on the financial sector, and a significant training and skills deficit. But, as the effect of the covid pandemic fades, we are seeing the effects of Brexit more clearly. In many indicators, such as business investment and the recovery of trade after Covid, the British economy has fared worse than any other in the G7. The number of SMEs doing business across the English Channel has fallen by roughly a third. According to official projections, the country will lose around 4% of its GDP as a result of Brexit. Rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have lowered the UK’s economic outlook from stable to negative. Of course it is, it’s Brexit, stupid.
Sunak is anything but a convinced European. His world is centered on the Silicon Valley-London-Mumbai axis and not on the London-Paris-Berlin axis. In 2016, he was a strong supporter of Brexit. But if he ever shared some of the delusions of Brexitism, he surely has lost them by now. As he demonstrated in his fight for the Conservative Party leadership with Truss this summer, he is a realist who puts sound public finances and market credibility first, much like Margaret Thatcher. And realism demands that, in extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances, you lower the barriers to doing business with your biggest market (the EU), not raise them even higher.
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There will be two immediate tests. One is well known: the Northern Ireland Protocol. Not only is this a difficult issue in itself, but the impasse over Northern Ireland is also blocking progress on other fronts, such as Britain’s re-entry into the Horizon program for scientific cooperation. The second test has drawn less attention. During Theresa May’s government, all existing EU regulations remained in UK law, unless individual regulations were explicitly replaced by new national regulations. Fancied by Truss, a bill has been introduced that will burn all current community-based regulations at the stake by the end of 2023. Departments will have to make a special argument to keep each of the more than 2,400 regulations or replace them. individually by new national standards. If Sunak is serious about focusing on what really matters to the British economy, he will scrap this crazy bill and start over.
Sunak may be financially competent and realistic, but he will govern with a chronically divided party behind him. Brexit ideologues remain strong. In the name of party unity, you will probably have to include some of them in his Cabinet. If British democracy worked like most of the great Western democracies, the country would now have a general election or a “constructive vote of no confidence” that would bring other parties to power. But it doesn’t work like that. The Tories they still have a large majority in Parliament. Given that most Conservative MPs would lose their seats in an election according to current polls, turkeys are unlikely to vote at Christmas. Yet the anger and dissension within the party are such, and the economic crisis so severe, that Britain could be headed for a general election before 2024.
Come election time, British voters will, as they traditionally do, almost certainly “throw the bastards out” (used as a non-partisan term) and elect a moderate centre-left government. Labor leader Keir Starmer is showing excessive caution about Europe, for fear of not winning back the voters in the north of England who came over to support Johnson to “get Brexit done”. He keeps parroting “let’s make Brexit work”, a terrible slogan, implying that the only thing wrong with Brexit is that it hasn’t been made to work properly. As public opinion is clearly changing, he should start by changing it to “make Britain work” (Brexit notwithstanding, of course).
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. A day in British politics right now is a long time. But the course of the journey is clear. Britain has finally started its long and painful journey back from the delusions of Brexit.
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