Peter Foster is the public policy editor of the Financial Times. In his previous role as Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph he chronicled the minutiae of the Brexit negotiations and their implementation. His new book, What Went Wrong with Brexit (and what we can do about it) analyses in meticulous detail the economic, political and cultural consequences of Brexit, and presents a menu of actions that could be taken in mitigation.
In a Grassroots for Europe webinar, held a week after publication in September 2023, Foster discussed the book with Alex Hall Hall, the senior British diplomat who famously resigned her position as Brexit counsellor to the UK’s Washington embassy, saying she could no longer “peddle half-truths” about Brexit.
How the book has been received
Early reviews of the book include an excoriating dismissal by arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan in the Daily Telegraph (“a sad example of Brexit derangement syndrome”) and enthusiastic reviews in the Guardian (“lays bare the claims Brexit would reduce red tape”), the Times (“a concise but wide-ranging book”), the Irish Times (“Foster shows that the UK is not happier, healthier or freer outside than inside the EU”), the Bookseller (“a clear-eyed, hard-hitting look at the real costs of Brexit”), and Waterstones (“A brilliantly concise and clear-headed primer on the legacy of Brexit and how the circumstances of the British nation have changed since 2016”).
A review in North East Bylines expresses surprise that, “Foster ostensibly takes the Tory–Labour red lines on Brexit as immovable and unquestionable for the foreseeable future, given that the findings of his book offer what amounts to a thorough demolition of both parties’ policies”. Questioned about this stance by Hall Hall, Foster explained that:
“If we could wave a magic wand and go back in time, I think we’d be better off inside the European Union. [But] if I called the book ‘Brexit Was Doomed from the Outset, and We’re All Going to Die’, it would have completely alienated everybody … I set myself the exercise, what can we do within the parameters of where the current political parties are?”
He added: “I have been asked, ‘Isn’t your book actually making an overwhelming case for rejoining?’ Well, you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment … My job as a journalist is to show not tell.”
How did it come to this?
Hall Hall began the interview with a series of questions about how, in Foster’s view, we got to where we are? Foster responded:
“Brexit came as a result of 40 years of negative narratives about the European Union, most of which turn a lot of truth about the European Union on its head. For example, the narrative that we had been shackled to a corpse by joining the single market. In truth it’s very clear that membership of the single market made the UK economy more competitive … When the 2016 referendum came along, most of the narratives about European Union membership were negative. They were about bendy bananas, emasculation, red tape.”
Hall Hall observed that, “I understand that many regular folk who haven’t steeped themselves in politics and who have been fed a diet of distorted reading by the media may not have understood the full impact of Brexit, but I can’t understand that of politicians … How could British politicians have been so massively ignorant? … As a civil servant I can tell you that civil servants brief ministers on the consequences or the implications of their policy choices. So how could they have kept on claiming things that weren’t true? Or believing them?”
Foster’s response was that politicians held on to “this idea that we always get what we want out of Europe in the end. Well, actually, we didn’t. But that mentality meant that politicians were endlessly adept at convincing themselves that the EU would show flexibility. Actually, when we were members, they didn’t show us nearly as much flexibility as we’d like to think. But when we were non-members, and the whole basis of the single market was under threat – from the migration crisis, from the election of Donald Trump – we absolutely failed to grasp the extent to which the European side had circled the wagons to defend the integrity of the four freedoms of the single market … They’d [the Conservative Party] sold this prospectus for Brexit, and they clung on to it very hard, even in the face of mounting facts”.
Brexit isn’t working …
“It’s not that it’s not been applied properly, it’s that, structurally, creating barriers to trade with your largest market embeds uncertainty in the regulatory environment that deters investors. Investors want to look into the horizon 10–15 years hence, and see that there will be a fact-based, legally sound policy environment that will allow them to invest, to export and to engage with the neighbourhood. And Brexit breaks that, even handled well.”
Foster also expressed concern:
“Now we’re going to move into a slightly more grinding phase, and my worry is that what we’re going to see is the application of localised and strategic anaesthetic to the problem, that is going to disguise the problem, and that it will become chronic and not acute … And actually there won’t be a great wake up moment … And that’s why I think this is quite an important moment for a national conversation as we approach … the very high likelihood of a Labour government … And I’m not at all confident what the outcome of that moment will be.
“But the hope is that this book will inform that conversation. It’s 170 pages, it’s not a long read. I’m a journalist, I’m not an academic: it’s not full of footnotes and unwieldy indexes, and anyone who can read a newspaper article could read this book, in an afternoon, pretty much. And so, whether it’s via my book or via organisations like this [Grassroots for Europe], we need to be having this conversation so that when the politics unblocks … we’re having a fact-based conversation about the way forward.”
… even for Brexiters
Foster acknowledged that “I’m not naive, I don’t think loads of Brexiteers … are going to run out and buy this book and go, gosh, we all made a terrible mistake, let’s rejoin the EU. But what I hope is that people will buy this book, press it into the hands of people who are somewhere in the middle ground and say this is an attempt just to lay out, in a pretty forensic, chilly way, why this doesn’t work.”
And he laid down a challenge to Brexit supporters:
“[We need] reasoned, cogent arguments, not just saying, ‘well, we can’t predict the future’. Actually, if you erect non-tariff barriers to trade with the market where you do half your trade, you can predict that’s going to be bad for your trade.
“You might argue that trade deals with the Trans-Pacific Partnership or Australia, or maybe a shallow deal with India, are going to offset the cost of hobbling our trade with Europe, but I don’t know any serious economists who want to make that case. If you are going to make a case about deregulation, well, we’re now three or four years into the Brexit deal, and actually, business has been overwhelmingly against deregulation.
“It hasn’t delivered the dividends: in fact, it delivers a lot of complexity, it retards investment … And so, let’s have a reasoned argument about what is the business case for staying out? I don’t mind if people read the book and say, he’s mad, this is total nonsense, what we need is … But what that response needs to be based on is a really serious business case. Because that’s not what’s happened so far.”
What might Labour do?
Foster is not optimistic about the prospects for more than incremental changes under an incoming Labour government:
“I haven’t seen great evidence of political courage … among the current Labour front bench.” But “we need to argue about where our strategic alliances lie, in a world where the USA and China are decoupling, where America is definitely pivoting away from Europe. We need to ask where we share goals with Europe on energy security, on energy distribution, on net zero, on Ukraine, and make the case for the neighbourhood”.
“A lot of people, including, in fact, myself, were very fearful that when Sunak proposed the Windsor framework, he’d be ripped to shreds by the right of his party. And guess what? It came, it went, it was a pragmatic deal. And the sky didn’t fall in. And I think Keir Starmer… is going to have to show some courage when he meets those attacks from the right wing, pro-Brexit press.
“There has to be a case for constructive engagement with our neighbourhood. And I can’t believe it’s beyond the capability of a newly elected prime minister, with a reasonable result in an election to make that case.”
And a warning: “But it may actually be they decide that the incremental economic gains that will come from tinkering with the trade and cooperation agreement are not worth the political headache. With massive fiscal constraints at the moment, Starmer’s going to inherit a country in lots of ways on its knees. Does he want to pick a fight on Europe? There will be members of the shadow cabinet, I suspect, who will be saying no, because maybe you won’t get what you want out of Brussels anyway.”
The way forward
Hall Hall suggested that “the way through this is for Labour to not make it about the EU, but about what makes sense if we’re concerned about the NHS or the creative industries”.
Foster agreed that the way forward is to “resist the temptation to say ‘I told you so’ and anchor the positive changes that we all seek … in the practical desire to make our neighbourhood relationship better. Don’t even use the Brexit word … I’m trying to drag the discussion into a space where more people understand the simple, practical difficulties that are created by Brexit, by the single market, by future regulations coming in carbon border taxes for businesses, new digital biometric borders, etc. There will be pressure points … use them to make the case for reengagement for our own good”.
A comment from Grassroots for Europe
Foster’s book has appeared at what may come to be seen as a tipping point in UK politics. The polls record an inexorable rise in endorsement of the proposition that Brexit is going badly (now approaching 70% and well over 80% among young people), and support for rejoining the EU stands consistently, over time and across pollsters, above 60%.
Just last week, an opinion piece in the Times has suggested that “Labour [now] believes Brexit is not the electorally toxic issue it was and could be a vote-winner”; Starmer has expressed an intention to “rewrite the Brexit deal” (in the spirit of British exceptionalism, overlooking the uncomfortable fact that the EU might have a different view); Laura Kuenssberg has a BBC documentary series chronicling the destruction that Brexit has wreaked on the Conservative Party; and a Franco-German think tank has produced a report, commissioned by the EU, proposing a multi-speed Europe with an associate ,member status that might suit the UK.
The overall message of Foster’s book is visible in its cover design, where the title ‘What Went Wrong with Brexit’ is in a font around three times the size of the subtitle ‘And What We Can Do About It?’, illustrating an underlying message that the harms of Brexit massively outweigh their potential mitigations: as Foster concludes, “merely tinkering around the edges of the trade and cooperation agreement will not transform the UK’s trade prospects”.
What Foster does not do is to spell out the gulf between what has been lost and what may be achievable by way of mitigation. It would have been informative to see him pressed harder on the extent of the avoidable Brexit harms that will continue to burden our future if we remain locked in by Labour’s red lines.
Foster’s book provides a guide for an incoming Labour government on how it might seek a better deal with the EU within the constraint of its red lines, and the costs, difficulties and delays it will face. At the same time, the book clearly implies that nothing short of single market membership will suffice to substantially halt and repair Brexit’s continuing harms. The benefits of any Brexit palliation package are shown to be radically insufficient.
Both in the book and the webinar, Foster insists that Starmer’s commitment to Brexit is absolute and immovable. But perhaps Starmer’s cautious opening to Europe may only be a beginning. Labour’s embrace of Brexit is coming under increasing internal challenge from those who doubt both its adequacy as an economic strategy and its value as a vote-winner.
Foster himself has already hinted that Starmer may soon come under pressure “to pink those red lines”. The logic of his book goes beyond what he chooses to spell out, but Foster thinks we are at an inflection point and counsels boldness. We agree with him on both points.
Links to sources
This article has provided only a taste of the issues discussed in the webinar, both the conversation between Foster and Hall Hall and the ensuing Q and A. For those whose appetites have been whetted, a video recording of the webinar and a readable edited transcript of the conversation are available on the Grassroots for Europe website. And Alex Hall Hall was sufficiently fired up by the webinar to publish her own book review .