Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Michael McDowell: Time to offer Britain a way back into Europe?

It seems impossible for a Tory or Labour politician to admit what is now blindingly obvious – Brexit has been a disaster

The wall-to-wall coverage in UK media of the World Cup in Qatar is understandable – up to a point. After all, England and Wales have teams in the finals and each has a chance of making football history.

But there is an element of bread and circuses in play. The so-called autumn statement delivered last week by Jeremy Hunt was bizarre in political terms. The British chancellor of the exchequer received physical as well as rhetorical pats on the back from Tory MPs as he sat down. He had just delivered the gloomiest outlook for the UK economy in decades. A mix of tax increases for the coping classes, huge expenditure cutbacks in real terms – described as “budgetary discipline” – and feeble growth rates for the foreseeable future after a short-term recession.

Nodding Tory backbenchers grunted approval at every line of his speech. And almost every line was couched in euphemism and understatement. The bottom line is that the UK has been living beyond its means and has been bingeing on unsustainable borrowing. With or without the Truss-Kwarteng daring escape plan from reality, there is a rather bleak medium-term outlook for post-Brexit UK.

With inflation exceeding 10 per cent, the planned failure to index-link tax thresholds will mean real and sustained reduction in take-home pay. And gross earnings cannot generally keep pace with inflation without a wage-price spiral. The result is that take-home pay for those in work will be less in nominal amount and still less in purchasing power. Consumer confidence is bound to sag. All the classic conditions and ingredients for stagflation seem to be present.


Everyone seems in awe of the result of the Brexit referendum – even deferential Irish Ministers

All of this is light years away from the sun-lit economic uplands conjured up by those who advocated Brexit – a thriving, prosperous Britain, freed at last from the shackles of EU membership and ready to set sail on a buccaneering voyage of free trade with the rest of the world. That vision is increasingly exposed for the snake-oil it always was.

This reality is now understood by ordinary Britons. The most recent opinion poll this month shows that 56 per cent of voters now think that leaving the EU was wrong, while a dwindling minority of 32 per cent still think it was right. The remainder don’t know.

The Tory press underplayed one of the most revealing recantations of recent times by George Eustice, the former Conservative minister responsible for agriculture. When the Boris Johnson administration hurriedly pushed through a free-trade agreement with Australia, Eustice defended the deal as “good” for the UK.

Last week, he deftly described the deal as “not very good” for the UK and pinned the blame on Liz Truss, then trade secretary, for being rushed and rolled over in the trade talks. He also blamed a civil servant, Crawford Falconer, who he claimed had “internalised” the Australians’ negotiating strategy at the expense of the UK’s position, and should on that account now be removed from his position.

When asked on BBC radio why he had defended and praised the deal when in office, he said he had to do so as a matter of collective cabinet responsibility. Could he not have resigned? he was asked. He replied that he thought it better to remain in position to defend the interests of British agriculture. But what was left unspoken was the collective desperate desire of his then Tory cabinet colleagues to appear to their voters to have concluded a very good deal for free-trading, buccaneering Britain in the post-Brexit world. As a keen Brexiteer, Eustice knew exactly what he was doing, then and now. And after her resignation, Truss was an all-too-tempting target for him to help explain his own failings.

The strange thing about British politics, or more precisely English politics, is that it seems impossible for anyone in either of the major parties to admit what is becoming blindingly obvious: that Brexit has been disastrous for Britain. To admit as much would, for the Tories, risk inviting Nigel Farage back on to the battlefield in some shape or form with all that entails.

For Labour leader Keir Starmer, with support exceeding 50 per cent in opinion polls, there is no need to revive the ire of Brexit-voting working-class Britain or to give the Tory media a political baseball bat to undo all his recent progress.

Recent press speculation about the UK seeking a Swiss-style relationship with the EU seems unfounded. It would be manna from heaven for Farage. And as the EU’s Michel Barnier made very clear to Theresa May, the bloc could not offer such generous terms to a seceding UK.

Everyone seems in awe of the result of the Brexit referendum – even deferential Irish Ministers.

But with a majority of British voters thinking now that Brexit was wrong, should someone not find the courage to speak for that majority and suggest: “Come back and all will be forgiven”?