Reading certain sections of the media this week you would be forgiven for thinking Brexit has somehow faded into the past, slipping out of the public mind as voters increasingly turn to other, and by implication, more important things.
Robert Colville, director of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, writes in The Times: The Tories should stop waving their Brexit ﬂags. Voters are drowning in other troubles. He argues that the number of people saying Brexit is one of the most important issues facing the country has collapsed.
Lexiter Larry Elliott, The Guardian’s pro-Brexit economics editor, says politicians are right to remain silent about Brexit and should “let sleeping dogs lie”: I’ve got news for those who say Brexit is a disaster: it isn’t. That’s why rejoining is just a pipe dream. He suggests the debate about leaving is over, and argues that Brexit hasn’t been a disaster and “after the inevitable disruption caused by leaving, there have been signs of the economy adjusting”.
The mysterious ‘opportunities’ of Brexit
Both Colville and Elliott write about how the ‘opportunities’ of Brexit are not yet being exploited but curiously neither man – like all orthodox Brexiters – feels able to reveal what those mysterious opportunities might be.
If either man actually knows what they are, they chose not to tell the rest of us, which is a surprise since Colville thinks Brexit is “at high risk of death by a thousand cuts” and Elliott says our economic performance since 2016 has been “mediocre”. You would think they might drop a line to Rishi Sunak to let him in to the secret because he still seems to be in the dark after seven years.
Colville points out this is happening even as Labour talks of closer economic ties with Europe, ending any suggestion of divergence or “doing things differently” (again he doesn’t say what) and asks if Britain has finally stopped caring about Brexit? It may be of course that they have simply stopped believing in Brexit and now accept Britain will one day rejoin.
The think tank UK in a Changing Europe published a report on the state of public opinion in 2023 which says, “What was once biggest political debate of the day [Brexit] does not now figure in the top ten issues prioritised by the public”.
Their conclusion is drawn largely from the latest YouGov polling. However, the top four issues today are the economy, health, immigration and asylum, and the environment, all of which have been impacted and continue to be impacted to a greater or lesser extent by Brexit.
UKICE’s report makes clear that not only do a majority now think Brexit was a historic mistake, “Around 58% would now vote to re-join the EU, while only 42% would vote to stay out – a ten-point swing since 2016,” according to Sir John Curtice. Moreover, voters identify more strongly as either leavers or remainers (65% and 71% respectively) than do Conservative or Labour voters (34% and 53% respectively). Perhaps the dogs are not sleeping quite as soundly as Elliott thinks.
Regardless of all that, down in the bunker, the impacts of Brexit continues to be felt, although we had just ten downsides added this week and no upsides.
Perhaps one of the most detailed reports of recent times appeared this week from The Resolution Foundation: Ending Stagnation. Whilst not exclusively about Brexit, the topic nevertheless gets 90 mentions, mostly negative. I offer just a few examples.
The reports says Brexit has brought change, “albeit not always in the form widely expected”:
“Brexit has made Britain a less open economy; by 2023, UK trade as a share of GDP was down 2.2 percentage points on pre-pandemic levels (the rest of the G7 saw a 0.5 percentage points rise). The decline is goods focused, with market share lost not just with the EU but also the US, Canada, and Japan. Looking ahead, some sectors such as food manufacturing will grow, and others such as fishing will shrink. Rather than closing regional divides or reinvigorating manufacturing, by the end of the decade Brexit will see annual real wages £470 lower relative to if the UK was still in the EU.”
“Even Brexit, the biggest shake-up to our economic place in the world in decades, will have little impact on the balance between goods and services – indeed the biggest risk is that it will change the quality, rather than the quantity, of British manufacturing. And not in a good way.”
“[Modelling] highlights further falls in trade openness to come: by 2030 we expect UK firms to export over 24 per cent less than if we had remained within the EU. But as Figure 20 shows, this varies hugely by sector: agricultural exports are expected to fall by over 80 per cent in total (and by over 90 per cent to the EU).”
“The lack of wide-ranging tariffs shouldn’t disguise the scale of the disruption: the new trade barriers have been estimated as equivalent to a 13 and 21 per cent increase in tariffs for our manufacturing and service sectors respectively, similar in scale to the tariffs implemented during the China–US trade war but covering a much larger proportion of UK trade.”
It reinforces the notion that the UK declared a trade war on itself when voting for Brexit.
Britain’s post-Brexit immigration regime is creating problems for recruitment in various sectors even as the number of visas issued for work and study reaches record levels. To try and reduce the near three quarters of a million (net) immigrants who came in 2022, the government has announced various changes to the income requirements needed to obtain a visa.
One change, to raise the income level in some cases to £38,700, means a Briton living abroad with a non-UK spouse may be unable to return to Britain with their family. Only those earning above this threshold will be entitled to sponsor dependants – including children and elderly parents as well as partners – to get a visa after the new rules comes into force next year.
The so-called illegal migration by asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats has also soared after Brexit, leading to the government’s policy of removing asylum seekers to Rwanda. The policy is costing £140mn plus future support for any refugees sent to the Central African country.
The policy has been described by a senior home office civil servant as a “political gimmick”. Government lawyers are also refusing to approve the most hardline version that would opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The UK is said to be at risk of losing out on skilled immigrants after the EU launched its own campaign to attract highly qualified workers from outside the bloc, in direct competition with the UK and as the British government is attempting to drastically cut immigration. The EU’s ‘Skills and Talent Mobility’ package intends to make the EU more attractive to fill persistent skills shortages in a range of sectors.
A survey by Make UK and reported by the FT, suggests 90% of UK exporting manufacturers are still facing challenges trading with the EU. The engineering trade body says, “little improvement” had been made since it conducted its first post-Brexit survey in mid-2021, with business still struggling with the effects of customs bureaucracy and logistics issues.
Make’s CEO Stephen Phipson said while British manufacturers had fought to reach other international markets, it faced a “minefield of challenges” when dealing with the country’s largest trading partner as he urged the government to do more to assist trade.
The managing director of a chemical manufacturer in the West Midlands has told the FT that during a recent chemical and pharmaceutical industry conference in Milan, several customers said the UK was “in the box marked too difficult” when it came to finding suppliers and trade partners.
Adrian Hanrahan, of Robinson Brothers in West Bromwich, said:
“Two German and a Belgian customer have both said to us directly: ‘Sorry Adrian, we know you do a great job, but dealing with the UK is just too much trouble now.’”
Scientists in the UK have welcomed the announcement of the UK rejoining Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship scientific research programme and the Copernicus part of the EU’s space programme from January next year. It means UK institutions missed out on three years of scientific funding and research collaboration.
The UK will contribute €2.43 billion per year on average to the EU budget for its participation in Horizon, and roughly €154 million for participation in Copernicus. Provisions are included for adjustments in payments if UK scientists win “too many” or “too few” grants.
Hopes that France was about to relax visa rules for British second-home owners have been dashed after a French parliamentary committee rejected an amendment to the country’s new immigration bill.
The amendment would have restored pre-Brexit travel conditions for UK residents who own property in France. The committee decided that:
“The automatic granting of a long-stay visa based solely on property ownership could be perceived as favouring a category of people because of their financial situation, creating inequality in relation to other foreign nationals who have to follow a more rigorous procedure to obtain such a visa.”
Music festival organisers say Brexit is creating problems attracting top headline acts to the UK. Before Brexit, playing in the UK would be considered part of a European tour.
Sacha Lord, co-founder of the Parklife festival said:
“You might do Brussels one night, Paris the next and then Manchester two nights later, but now no one can risk equipment being delayed at the border. If that happens you’re going to lose your headliners. It’s caused major issues in the industry.”
Victoria Eveleigh, who farms at West Ilkerton near Lynton, said that farmers were “a bit befuddled” by the pace of change and the lack of clarity from the government since we left the EU. She claimed that Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme had become “so complicated” that only the big farmers who could afford the best land agents would benefit, while small farms would struggle to keep up.
There were no upsides to report this week but I did receive an email yesterday from someone listing about ten which I will return to shortly.