It wasn’t meant to be like this. In the run-up to the referendum Brexiteers were emphatic: departure from Europe would solve Britain’s woes. The project would reenergise our politics. Departure would be a breeze, and after a smooth round of negotiations we would step into a brighter future. We would control our own destiny. It would all be incredibly exciting.
Two years later and any sense of excitement has long since dissipated. There is in its place a profound feeling of national fatigue. You might expect that from Remainers; last week I met with hardline Eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin. “At the moment it feels very wearing,” he confided.
That sentiment is spreading.
Gradually the reality is sinking in: departure is impossibly complex. Having joined the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain is deeply enmeshed in the EU frameworks. Pulling us out has consumed all government bandwidth for two years and will likely do so for a lot longer. This is not the walk in the park we were promised; it is an immense technical and political challenge.
What is interesting is how the rhetoric has changed. It was subtle at first, but think: when was the last time you heard a government minister—or even a Brexiteer—proclaim the advantages of leaving? The bombast of mansion house has quietly faded away. Still there is insistence that we must leave. There is a referendum mandate to discharge. But the argument doesn’t sound like it did. There is now far less excitement.
One prominent pro-Brexit Twitter account (which I won’t name) sums up the problem. Before the referendum it tweeted that exit will be “glorious.” This week it reassured followers that departure will not be as bad as the bubonic plague. Vote Leave mastermind Dominic Cummings has taken a similar journey and now writes exasperated blogs accusing the government of gross incompetence.
The sense of national fatigue will only increase as negotiations wind on. Voters are already fed up: two thirds say the talks are going badly, and we have yet to even start on negotiations for the future relationship. As the months pass and Britain undergoes yet more humiliation, as the government fails to complete any task that is not Brexit-related, as the economic squeeze starts to bite, expect any remaining Brexit enthusiasm to fade, barring the real die-hards.
Where will that leave us?
The political significance of fatigue should not be underestimated. I doubt that it will mean a reversal of Brexit altogether. But it could certainly soften the end state.
Over recent weeks the initial Brexit timescale has started to blur: the process is set to drag on for longer than the government ever planned. Theresa May has admitted that the UK could remain in a customs union for several years after the end of the transition, a once unthinkable admission.
Former Ambassador to the EU Stephen Wall asked me recently, if Britain is in a customs union long-term, “is that going to be such a huge deal? It seems hard to think that it is.”
Britain is a tired country. For years our politics will have been utterly dominated by the Brexit project—one which 48 per cent of people didn’t vote for. When Britain has legally left Europe and there is the psychological release, will there still be public appetite for further divergence? Will there still be government appetite for it?
We will begin highly aligned with the continent. Future deviation from EU standards will be promised. But will the motivation really be there for yet more painstaking negotiations? By then new political crises will have erupted. Politicians will be exhausted. Other issues will take over.
For my money, the impetus behind a hard exit will likely have dissipated. Don’t be surprised if in ten years we are still hugging the EU very closely indeed. We will be too worn out to do anything else.