Why Brexit has disappeared from the news agenda – and why it needs to come back
With both main parties determined not to mention it and with news outlets concentrating on other events, the issue that will pose the biggest challenge to our economy whoever wins next year’s general election has been airbrushed from the political landscape.
I’m referring, of course, to Brexit.
Unlike the last election campaign in 2019, when Boris Johnson swept to victory with the slogan “Get Brexit Done”, the Conservatives don’t want to mention it because there are no tangible benefits to show from it. And Labour doesn’t want to dredge Brexit up as an issue because of the fear that sufficient numbers of people in their former Red Wall seats are still dewy eyed about it and may take offence if it’s said that they made a mistake in voting for it.
At the same time, most news outlets have concluded that there’s no mileage in banging on about Brexit because most people have moved on and are preoccupied with “other things”.
The fact that such other things – like the cost of living crisis – are linked to Brexit is, however, often seen as too controversial to mention.
A further explanation for the indifference is the public’s increasing tendency to have a limited attention span for any particular issue. During the era of start-stop lockdowns, the news was totally dominated by Covid-19 and everything else found it difficult to get traction.
For a time, interest in the pandemic was prolonged by Partygate, but when the long-drawn-out agony of removing Johnson from office came to an end, attention turned to the shambles of the Tory succession and the cost of living crisis. Interest in Covid plummeted and today, even though the UK Covid Inquiry is underway with a succession of shocking revelations, it’s not getting anywhere near the attention it deserves.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 grabbed the headlines for months, but when the conflict reached a stalemate, people to a large extent lost interest. There was, I think, a naïve expectation that plucky Ukraine would be able to defeat the Russian bear in double-quick time, but of course that was never realistically going to happen.
The worry for the Ukrainians now is that their Western weapons suppliers will baulk at the expense, cut the aid and hand the advantage to Putin. The possibility of such an outcome will increase as the war grinds on and as public apathy grows. A Trump victory in next November’s US presidential election would be extremely ominous for Ukraine.
Currently the dominant news story is Israel’s invasion of Gaza. There was initially much horror at the brutal slaying of Israelis by Hamas and considerable sympathy and interest has been maintained by the continuing hostage crisis and, from the point of view of news outlets, the human interest stories that stem from that.
Equally, the deaths of Palestinian children in particular as a result of what appears to be indiscriminate Israeli bombing has shocked and engaged many millions. Yet despite the so-called humanitarian pause that lasted a few days, all the moral pressure from demonstrations around the world has not led to a permanent ceasefire.
The indications are that Israel’s right wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by even more right wing ministers, will press ahead with his military campaign, killing many more civilians. One would like to believe otherwise, but the chances are that sooner or later the present intense interest in the conflict will wane, except predominantly for those directly affected.
With such tragedies going on in the world, it’s not surprising that Brexit has been relegated from the news premier league. That happened long ago in the rest of Europe and now it appears to be happening here.
Those who would like the UK to rejoin the EU have been buoyed by successive opinion poll findings that show a clear majority of people now think Brexit was a bad idea. Drill a little deeper, however, and the news isn’t quite so promising. Young people, more likely to support EU membership than their elders, no longer seem so enthusiastic about rejoining as they did when we left the bloc nearly four years ago.
Reporting on recent poll research, the Guardian said: “In last weekend’s YouGov polling, when asked what the UK should do ‘when it comes to our future trading relationship with the European Union’, only 36% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they would want to rejoin the EU. A significant minority, one in five, said the right thing would be to increase the trading relationship but not rejoin the bloc.
“Ipsos polling for The Rest is Politics podcast, helmed by the remainers Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, found that 49% of people in the 18-34 age group support a referendum on the UK joining the EU in the next five years. That does not sound like a great level of enthusiasm either.”
And yet there are compelling economic reasons why the UK should rejoin, probably going back into the single market and customs union first. We know that the economic forecasts aren’t great, that despite the cut in National Insurance announced in the Autumn Statement overall taxation is continuing to rise, and that Labour, expected to be in government after next year’s election, says programmes like its green growth initiative are no longer affordable.
What Labour refuses to do, for short-term electoral reasons, is join up the dots, admit Brexit was a disastrous act of self-harm and tell the British people that embarking on a route back to EU membership should be a priority.
But there are still those telling such truths if you seek them out. I get emails from the European Movement UK, whose President is the former Tory Prime Minister Lord Michael Heseltine, born in Swansea 90 years ago.
The other day I got a message from him which read: “Everyone has been talking about the economy over the last week, following Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement which promised to ‘turbocharge’ growth, cut red tape for businesses and more.
“But missing from the Chancellor’s speech, and much of the subsequent debate, is an honest acknowledgement of the most significant cause of the UK’s economic malaise.
“We can’t mend our ailing economy without addressing the elephant in the room – Brexit. Anything that omits this is just tinkering around the edges. No amount of personal or business tax cuts will undo the damage that Brexit has done, and continues to do, to our economy. The evidence of this damage continues to stack up. Britain can’t afford Brexit.
“Last week, the European Movement’s Business Impact Report found that over 93% of businesses surveyed have experienced negative effects from Brexit, across all sectors.
“The National Institute of Economic and Social Research reported that the current estimated impact of Brexit on the UK economy is a reduction of 2.5% of GDP.
“The deputy Governor of the Bank of England said last Tuesday that Brexit has ‘chilled’ UK investment levels.
“And we know that the true extent of the economic damage of Brexit will take 15 years to fully materialise. It is predicted that by 2035 the UK economy will be between 5-6% smaller than it would be if we had not left the European Union. That’s around £115-135 billion poorer, at today’s prices.
“This represents an enormous amount of lost revenue for our country. Revenue that could have been used to address the cost-of-living crisis, invest in our public services, to build vital new infrastructure, and more. Opportunities all lost because of the appalling deception of Brexit.
“So we must remain adamant in making the case for the UK to reclaim our place in Europe and access to the single market and customs union. This is the only thing that will set our country back on the right track.
“The economic fallout from Brexit affects all of us. It is already costing the UK about £850 a year for every person in the country, and is set to reach £2300 – per person, per year – over the next decade. We must not let that happen. We must not simply stand by while the decline sets in further, hindering our country’s chances of future success, prosperity and influence on the world stage. Together, we will continue to expose the consequence of Brexit, build political pressure, and bring more people over to our growing movement.”
When he was a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, I disliked Michael Heseltine as much as any other Tory minister. I saw him as complicit in the havoc she was wreaking on the economy with her monetary policies and her attacks on trade unions. I never thought I would agree with him about anything. But I do about Brexit. Wholeheartedly.
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