What do my friends the musicians Sting, John Etheridge and Tom McGuinness (of the Manfreds) have in common, apart from music? They have recently told me they are witnessing first-hand the frustrations of Brexit: loss of the benefits of freedom of movement, and the bureaucratic damage inflicted on one of this country’s widely recognised strengths, namely the creative arts.
In this they are joined by most British manufacturers and members of the hospitality industry. These are struggling to find replacements for the EU workers who have been made to feel unwelcome and have been effectively banned, or voted with their feet. All their would-be employers think Brexit is hugely damaging to their respective businesses, and would like to reverse it.
Moreover, they cannot understand why the Labour party is being so wet on the issue. One hears the view that Keir Starmer is playing a cautious and clever game. But one also hears the view that, for all the efforts of Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to convince the public that Labour has a vision, this vision is coming across as being somewhat blurred, and mistily confusing.
At a time when opinion polls show that clear majorities of respondents think Brexit was a mistake, and one of the prime culprits, the egregious Nigel Farage, admits that “Brexit has failed”, Labour seems terrified of seizing the opportunity of a political lifetime, and simply going for rejoining.
Before we continue, it should be noted that, inevitably, Farage blames everyone but himself for the disaster of Brexit, and shows no signs, as yet, of fulfilling his promise to “live abroad” if Brexit proved to be the disaster it indubitably is.
The ultimate irony, as the former EU commissioner for competition Mario Monti reminded us in the Financial Times, is that “the benefits of such a successful project [the single market], whose parents were two British politicians (prime minister Margaret Thatcher and commissioner Arthur Cockfield) would eventually be given up by the UK as part of Brexit”.
I cannot refrain from reminding people of our Brexiter prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Freudian slip in pointing out to the awkward squad in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party that by being in the UK and the single market they had the best of both worlds.
It is a common refrain that “things are going to pot” and “nothing seems to be working properly” – an exaggeration, perhaps, but an understandable one. But one thing is abundantly clear: people can no longer blame the EU for their troubles. Years of austerity and neglect are catching up with us.
Which brings us back to Labour. I commend the view of Trevor Greetham of Royal London: “While there wasn’t a ‘Brexit dividend’ there would certainly be a ‘reversing Brexit’ dividend. Any party coming in to office with a credible promise to join the single market, or ultimately the EU, would be able to base their tax and spending plans on a significantly larger economy with OBR approval” – a reference to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s widely accepted calculation that the macroeconomic cost of Brexit rises to about 4% or £100bn a year.
The alternative, says Greetham, is the “austerity mark two” already pencilled in for this government’s plans for public spending should it win the next election.
Now, the damage being caused by Brexit is mounting visibly by the day. My two objections to those politicians and columnists who say it will be years before we can rejoin are, first, the damage is guaranteed to intensify when the next stage of the barriers to trade comes into force at the end of this year, and, second, there are still ultra-rightwing Brexiters who are trying to enforce the abandonment of thousands of EU laws, which would make it that much more difficult to negotiate re-entry. So far even Brexiter Sunak has warded them off on most issues, but those ERG fanatics are still hard at it.
After the searing experience with the 2016 referendum, people worry about the ghosts that might reappear if there is another. But why bother? Edward Heath seems to be remembered principally for the three-day week of 1973-74 and being brought down by the miners. But he also goes down in history for exercising the leadership to take us into what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 – it was Harold Wilson who held a referendum in 1975 to reconcile the dissidents in the Labour party. Mrs Thatcher did not feel the need to hold a referendum in 1986 when we joined the single market.
In my view, Starmer should come out strongly, and soon, for re-entry. He should make it an election issue, while hammering home the mounting costs of a Brexit championed by a failing and totally discredited Conservative-Brexit party.