The tide is turning against Brexit — Labour must seize the moment
Almost all Britons will have been downcast as they returned to work or education last week, and not just for the normal reasons. All those who voted for Brexit will look back at how little has been achieved towards their causes for £350m a week to the NHS, a faster growing economy, and a plethora of trade deals around the world.
Those who voted Remain will plod on with a heavy heart knowing that despite a series of concessions by the UK government, Britain still looks likely to leave the EU on 29 March 2017. For them New Year’s Day 2019 is the one to dread.
Finally, those that did not vote or did not care about the outcome will have their heads in their hands as they realise that the government appears to be unable to take a decision on anything, whether on health, education, or housing to name three, because ministers and civil servants are tied up in Brexit.
Love him or loathe him but former PM Tony Blair summed up the mood with his call that 2018 will be the year when the fate of Brexit and thus of Britain will be decided. In fact, I believe that this year will see the tide turn firmly away from Brexit.
The clock is ticking, with less than 15 months until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. If someone is going to wake up happy on Tuesday 1 January 2019, then something will have to change this year.
I set out last week how the economic realities of an imminent Brexit will become the major themes of 2018. But even the exodus of global companies, a shortage of workers in the NHS and on our farms, firms going bust, and millions a week being spent on civil servants rather than the health service, cannot on their own scupper Brexit.
The real impetus for change must come from the voters who gave the authority to the government and Parliament to start the Brexit train stuttering in the first place. People who voted to leave the EU but can now see they have been short-changed should stand up and say so.
As former Labour minister Lord (Andrew) Adonis said on Iain Dale’s show on LBC last week, once it is clear that voters have changed their minds then MPs and peers will have little choice but to step on the brakes. One caller to the show, a woman from Manchester, said that she had witnessed an increase in the number of Regretters over the past year — people who voted to leave now wanted to have a vote on the final deal now they were informed about the issues.
What should they tell them to do? she asked. Easy: this is the year for people who want either to stay in the EU or to have a vote on the final deal to write to their MPs — and to call in on shows such as Iain Dale’s.
There are signs the tide is already turning. A poll just before the end of 2017 in The Independent found that more than half of Britons back staying in the European Union, with a 10-point lead for people who want to remain over those who still back Brexit. The BMG Research poll found 51% favoured staying in the EU while 41% backed Brexit. An ICM poll saw a closer margin of 46% versus 43% but still against Brexit.
WITH THE TORIES MIRED IN INFIGHTING, THE WAY IS CLEAR FOR LABOUR TO SEIZE THE INITIATIVE
Perhaps the swing voter this year will be the Labour party. It has so far been skilful in maintaining a constructive ambiguity over its position on Brexit. They have signalled to Leavers they respect the will of the people, while at the same time saying they want Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU while being “flexible” as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained in the long term by negotiating a new single market relationship.
With the Tories mired in infighting and Brussels remaining steadfast in its opposition to any bespoke deal that would allow the UK to cherry-pick concessions, the way is clear for Labour to seize the initiative.
But that party too should listen to the warning sounds: Labour voters could abandon the party if they do not make their support for the EU project clearer. Tony Blair has even predicted that Labour would "annihilate" the Conservatives at the next election if it changed its position on Brexit.
As economic growth continues to bump along the bottom at 1.5% a year, employment continues to fall, and high shop prices eat into voters’ budgets, opinion against Brexit will continue to harden.
The decision to leave the EU was a result of David Cameron’s attempts to lance the boil of Euroscepticism inside his party rather than any vision for the nation. Labour must make Brexit a Tory Brexit and make clear they own its 100%. If they can do that, then it will be a Happy New Year, 2019.
About the author
Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.
Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.
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