New polling draws attention to a fundamental problem for Remainersby Oliver Kamm / March 29, 2018 / Leave a comment
A year from the scheduled departure of Britain from the European Union, it’s obvious that the arguments adduced for Brexit were bogus and that Britain will struggle with the consequences of a policy that has no post-war precedent for irrationality. Even the historic humiliation of the Suez crisis in 1956 is dwarfed by Brexit. Anthony Eden’s dishonest venture cruelly exposed Britain’s diminished status and ruptured the relationship with its most powerful ally. Brexit sets this country at odds with all its allies simultaneously, harms the economy, and reopens the issue of divisions in Ireland 20 years after the conflict was sublimated in a negotiated agreement.
Polls show the public neither trusts nor respects the government’s handling of the issue. A new survey by Survation for the GMB shows that only 15 per cent of voters believe the government is handling Brexit well, while almost half believe it’s handling the process badly. A new Comres/Daily Express poll shows that 44 per cent believe the government’s handling of Brexit so far has been “a total shambles.”
Public opinion is right. The government has no plan for Brexit because Leave campaigners themselves had no plan for it. Theresa May is winging it. There was no vote to leave the single market or the customs union, yet the prime minister insisted on a maximalist vision of departure from Europe that will require reimposing a hard Irish border and will damage economic growth by constraining flows of goods, services, investment and labour. May’s very act of triggering Article 50 when she didn’t know what her European policy was, as well as her vainglorious decision to hold an unnecessary election, has brought British policymaking to a state of stasis that inspires pity and derision among our European partners.
Yet there is no obvious appetite to revisit the referendum vote. Around two-thirds of voters (in the Comres poll) believe the country should accept Brexit and “move on.” What’s the explanation, given that the government doesn’t command public support or respect in its handling of the process?
“44 per cent believe the government’s handling of Brexit so far has been ‘a total shambles'”
The answer is probably twofold. First, though there have already been economic costs to the Brexit vote, the full extent of them will show up only after Britain has left. And just as voters in 2016 did not appear to really believe Brexit would damage their living standards, there’s polling evidence to suggest they still think Brexit will not have a significant long-run effect on the economy.
This is unlikely to be true. The long-term impact is where there is least dispute among economists on this issue. It’s not a subject like debates over the euro 15 to 20 years ago, where expert opinion was divided: the microeconomic benefits of a single currency were balanced by the costs of ceding monetary sovereignty. This is an issue more like the Scottish independence debate, where the economic arguments point overwhelmingly one way while the campaigners on the other side talk about something else.
Second, the enfeebled state of British politics makes a disastrous decision difficult to modify, let alone to arrest. Since her misjudged attempt to win her own electoral mandate, May has stumbled often but remains unchallenged within her own party. She’s shown undoubted leadership qualities in responding to the Salisbury poisoning and in assembling a coordinated diplomatic response to the Putin regime. And she is fortunate in having an opposition that has no plan for Brexit either and whose leader commands even less public and parliamentary respect than she does.
Jeremy Corbyn responded to the Brexit vote by calling for Article 50 to be triggered immediately, which would have weakened Britain’s negotiating stance even further. Labour’s approach to Brexit is no more coherent than the government’s, which is unsurprising as Corbyn largely agrees with it while having a nugatory grasp of policy detail. His confusion is evident in his continual calls for tariff-free access to the single market (as if tariffs were the main trade barrier between EU and non-EU states) and in his stubborn factual error in stating that leaving the EU requires leaving the single market (it doesn’t, as the position of Norway outside the EU but inside the single market demonstrates).
Add to this Corbyn’s fumbling of other issues, notably on Russian aggression and anti-Semitism within his party, and you get a predictable outcome. The Conservative Party is weak, insular and divided, and it can carry on pretty much as it likes while the main opposition party is conceptually incoherent and politically bankrupt. The people who will pay for this cross-party abdication of civic responsibility will be those now coming of age who will lose the automatic right to settle, study and live in the 27 other countries of the EU. It’s a crying shame, a scandal and a sell-out, but most of all it’s a betrayal by current generations of those who come after us.