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Brexit wasn’t all for nothing. It’s worse than that – and the people are realising it

Three years on, British backing idea leaving EU was an error and they were never destined for sunlit uplands

Britain marks the third anniversary of its Wile E Coyote leap into the Brexit abyss just as a delicate, tedious choreography guides the Northern Ireland protocol discussions towards a resolution. A lookback at all those shockingly divisive years can still astound one. What was it all for?

Brexit’s third anniversary present, courtesy of the International Monetary Fund, is the forecast that the UK will be the only G7 economy to shrink this year. The UK is the sick man of the G7.

Nervous BBC business journalists danced around it this week (recall the chairman’s personal connection to Brexit totem Boris Johnson), arguing that perhaps the judgment was too harsh on the UK, that actually they were performing better than Germany, that it “could squeak out” a little bit more positivity

But on Monday night, the hapless trade correspondent lumped with the task of analysing Brexit’s impact three years on had to concede the economy “does appear to have taken a hit” from leaving. “New” trade deals mostly just copied and pasted from the EU or fairly worthless – and not a hint of a US or China deal anytime soon. Some 330,000 fewer workers in hard-hit sectors. Stalled investment. Financial services, fishing and electric vehicles still in flux. The UK is the only major economy that is smaller and poorer than pre-pandemic.


Early on Tuesday morning, Radio 4′s Today programme staged an old-style Brexit ding-dong between two big City financiers: arch Leaver and former Boris Johnson adviser Edi Truell and Remainer Guy Hands.

Truell personified the brutal mindset behind the Leave campaign and its Johnson totem. He was angry at the scaredy cats who refused to give him the Brexit he wanted, ie to “rip up” all the regulations. Then again he took a positive from the financial services sector with its big trade surplus even though it still lost – but in his world that was okay “because the EU probably lost more…”

Hands, who adjudged Brexit as “a complete disaster” and the product of “a bunch of complete and total lies”, was appalled. “To justify any decision by saying it’s hurt our neighbour more and therefore we look better is just frankly the most bizarre and disruptive form of economics you can get… That might work for hedge funders and the very wealthy but it doesn’t work for the man in the street.”

Presenter to Truell: “Do you understand why things have not been ripped up as you’d hoped given the example of your sector’s reaction to the plans presented by Truss and Karteng?”

Truell reckons the big banks, insurance companies and so on have invested so many hundreds of millions to deal with the “blizzard of rules” that they came to “actually LIKE that moat. It stops challenges breaking in.”

The only way Boris Johnson’s Brexit was going to work, said Hands, was if there had been a complete deregulation and they had moved to “a sort of Liz Truss utopia of a Singapore state… Effectively all they did was throw the country and the NHS under the bus.”

Truell conformed precisely to type. That’s the kind of emotional stuff that makes him even keener on leaving the EU, he said.

He didn’t quite say that the ideas were good, it was the people who failed, but it was as near as, damnit. So what do the people think?

This week saw the release of yet another poll in which a majority believe the decision to leave the EU was wrong. This one was from the Unherd news site, no Remainer hotbed, in which an extraordinary majority – 647 out of 650 UK constituencies (excluding Northern Ireland) – agreed it was wrong.

There is a pattern. Support for rejoining has been speeding up for a year in the UK Independent’s tracker poll. A few weeks ago it hit two-thirds.

The YouGov tracker poll is reporting 56 per cent saying it was wrong to leave. But is it a purely demographic drift – as old people die and new voters sign up? Prof John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde and reckons not. “The big change is among Leave voters. You don’t get from 52 per cent 12 months ago to 58 per cent now through demographic change, he says. It’s too much and too fast.”

The striking aspect of this hugely significant shift is that it is represented nowhere in Westminster. All the brave ones were ejected in Johnson’s Oven-Ready Brexit election. The best Labour can offer is Keir Starmer’s “make Brexit work” slogan with a hint of a suggestion of closer UK-EU relations under a Starmer government. Without the exhausted, fed-up remainers or the fiasco around the NI protocol or these anniversary milestones, Brexit would sink into a black hole of embarrassed silence. After just three years.

It wasn’t all for nothing. It’s worse than that. The wealthy donors and Truell-style rip-it-up merchants set fire to hard-won political capital and relationships. They laid waste to precious trust, time and potential. Just who was destined for those sunlit uplands? There is poignancy now in seeing the scales fall from people’s eyes.

There is added poignancy in the notion they can simply fix it somehow or even rejoin. That may take a while.