Back in the day when Theresa May was in charge of Brexit and the country, government by soundbite was all the rage. We had the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit” and the fatuous “strong and stable”, but none were so pervasive as the much relied upon “will of the people”.
The will of the people
It was the number one get-out-of-jail-free card for the government. Brexit was not the choice of the government, they said, but the democratic choice of the British voting public. It was defined as the will of the majority, and therefore it was the government’s duty to deliver it. Or at least to try.
Leaving aside the fact that only 17 million people voted for Brexit out of an eligible voting population of around 46 million, the claim that the referendum vote showed a clear majority in favour of leaving the EU was always a stretch. Add to that the fact that Leave won by such a small margin, and the lie that Brexit was the ‘will of the people’ was stretched to breaking point.
The “wrong decision”
Six and a half long years on from the referendum, with the impacts of Brexit being widely felt, the British public’s view of Brexit is rather different. ‘Project fear’ – which warned of the dangers of severing ties with our closest and largest trading partner – has become ‘project reality’. The lies of the Leave campaign have been revealed and the Brexit that was promised has been exposed as an illusion.
The majority of the British public – finally – have opened their eyes to the truth. In a recent YouGov poll, 56% now believe it was the ‘wrong decision to vote to leave the European Union’. Not only is that the highest percentage to date, but the gap between those that believe it was wrong and those that still support Brexit has widened to 24% – another record.
It’s not just Remainers saying that Brexit was wrong either. One in five people who voted for Brexit “now think it was the wrong decision” and only 70% – another record – believing they made the right decision in 2016.
Despite the government’s bare-faced attempts to hide the truth, or misdirect blame, the evidence of Brexit damage is piling up. Inflation – at 11.1% – is at a 41-year high, the country is in recession and the UK economy is going backwards. Where other countries that suffered economic downturns, due to Covid and the Ukraine war, are now recovering, the UK is not. In fact, the UK is the only G7 country where GDP is now lower that it was before the pandemic.
The Office for Budgetary Responsibility, sponsored by HM Treasury, has predicted a decline of 1.4% in GDP for 2023 – the “sharpest decline in Europe”. But don’t expect the government to accept that any of the UK’s economic problems are down to Brexit, or their own terrible mismanagement. Instead, you’ll hear references to causes outside of their control. Or as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed in his Autumn statement, the blame lies with “unprecedented global headwinds”. The public don’t seem to believe that.
Time for politicians to start listening
It might suit the government to fail to accept the impact of Brexit. What is increasingly hard to justify though, is the Labour Party’s unwillingness to hold the government to account for it. That Labour would prefer to leave a toxic Brexit in the hands of the Conservatives is understandable. Their focus is on winning the next election, and reclaiming lost voters in red wall seats. But with such a demanding lead in the polls, the Tories currently so unpopular and shifting public opinion re Brexit, that Labour policy seems increasingly ill-advised.
With the shift in public opinion away from Brexit and back towards closer ties with Europe, it’s high time the government started listening. Brexit is not the will of the British people. It probably never was. It was, however, the will of an extremist right-wing cult in the Tory party and an attempt by David Cameron to prevent the party tearing itself apart.
As with almost everything else this government has touched since 2016, Brexit has been a very expensive, divisive, damaging and ultimately unsuccessful project. If the last six years have proved anything it’s that the government never cared for anyone’s best interests but their own. Brexit is in no one’s best interests. It’s time the politicians, like the British public, started to say so, out loud and in public.