More than six years after voting to leave the European Union, the UK is facing a protracted recession, a deep cost-of-living crisis and a shortage of workers. Last week’s Fall Statement heralded years of higher taxes and cuts in public spending.
The gloomy forecast has reopened the Brexit debate, which many thought had ended for good with the signing of a free trade agreement at Christmas 2020.
Days after being forced to agree to sweeping changes to tax policy, Brexiteers last weekend faced a Sunday Times story that senior figures in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government were seeking a “swiss style relationship” closer with the European Union.
The language angered hardliners who oppose anything that compromises Britain’s newly won regulatory liberties. Yet the very fact that the possibility was raised in public, and attributed to a senior government source, is a departure from Boris Johnson’s bombastic stance or the short-lived low-tax vision of his successor, Liz Truss.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt has privately said Britain should seek a closer trade deal with the EU, in line with the Sunday Times report, several senior government figures familiar with his thinking said. In the first sign of discontent with Hunt inside the Sunak camp, a senior official criticized the minister for speaking too freely.
A spokesman for Hunt declined to comment. Hunt’s views have been overinterpreted by the media, people familiar with her thinking said.
Time of changes
However, Hunt’s tone reflects a shift in public attitudes and a new poll overseen by UK election guru Professor John Curtice shows Britons reject Brexit 57% to 43%. . Last week, YouGov Plc reported that a record 56% of respondents now believe Brexit was wrong. Some 19% of those who voted for Brexit now regret their choice, YouGov said.
“There is a gradual and slow erosion of support for Brexit”said Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, in an interview.
The current government, in power for 12 years, is simply not very popular anymore, Curtice noted, and faces a demographic problem. “With every cohort of 18-year-olds entering the electorate, there are more people who are pro-EU”.
For now, though, Brexit remains divisive enough to force the prime minister, a longtime Brexiteer who backed Vote Leave in 2016, to speak on Monday.
“Under my leadership, the UK will not seek any relationship with Europe that is contingent on alignment with EU laws”Sunak told the Confederation of British Industry annual conference. Regulatory freedom, he said, is “a major Brexit opportunity”.
Sunak’s clear and swift rebuttal was applauded by David Frost, who served as Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator and called Sunak’s comments “welcome and reassuring”.
Others were less convinced. In a message to the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group on Sunday seen by Bloomberg, former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke told his colleagues that the Treasury has a “long-standing ambition” to align the UK with EU rules to ensure the economic benefit of access to their markets.
Parliamentary arithmetic also matters. Many Conservative MPs elected in 2019 are in favor of Brexit, making it unlikely that there will be any new proposals for Brussels before the next election, scheduled for January 2025.said several conservatives. Pro-Brexit MPs would try to oust Sunak if he tried, one MP said.
Few expect a drastic policy change anytime soon. Those involved in the ongoing talks over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status, both on the UK and EU sides, were shocked by the reports, with an EU diplomat saying no such deal is on offer. Swiss. Two EU sources told Bloomberg they felt the proposal was aimed at testing the appetite in the UK, and within the Conservative Party, for deepening the UK-EU economic relationship.