To survive, Rishi Sunak must take on the ‘Bregretters’

Brexit supporters in Parliament Square as the UK formally left the EU on January 31, 2020.
Brexit supporters in Parliament Square as the UK formally left the EU on January 31, 2020.

“Tonight, we are leaving the European Union,”, Boris Johnson declared in dramatic fashion on January 31, 2020.

“This is not an end but a beginning,” insisted the former Prime Minister, as he announced: “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.”

Promising to “deliver the changes people voted for” by “controlling immigration, doing free trade deals, creating freeports and liberating our fishing industry”, the man who won the general election a month earlier by pledging to “Get Brexit done” suggested our EU exit was a “moment of real national renewal and change”.

With characteristic optimism, he added: “I know that we can turn this opportunity into a stunning success. And whatever the bumps in the road ahead I know that we will succeed.

“We have obeyed the people. We have taken back the tools of self-government.

“Now is the time to use those tools to unleash the full potential of this brilliant country and to make better the lives of everyone in every corner of our United Kingdom.”

On Tuesday, the UK will mark the third anniversary of that historic moment. Yet with a growing sense of 'Bregret’ taking hold in Britain and Brexit blamed – rightly or wrongly – for contributing to our economic woes, is there really much cause for celebration?

The obvious advantages of leaving Brussels behind include a faster and more effective vaccination rollout than our European neighbours, and the UK leaving the likes of Germany and France trailing in the wake of its robust response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But overall, Britain appears to have so far failed to maximise the advantages of Brexit, thanks largely to the pandemic and the war in eastern Europe, but also what some Leavers view as a lack of political will and belief in the project.

With the Northern Ireland Protocol issue still unresolved – and the UK’s trade deal with the US among other unfinished business – there is a sense that the “oven- ready deal” Mr Johnson cooked up has only been half baked.

Liz Truss, his successor, spoke of “growing the pie” – yet following her short-lived tenure, we’ve returned to a tax- and- spend status quo under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, that critics claim has long stifled our competitiveness against our Continental cousins.

Migration remains at an all- time high (504,000 in the year ending June 2022, an increase of 331,000 compared with the year ending June 2021), with small boats a particular area of failure because of our membership of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Plans to deport illegal immigrants to Rwanda have been thwarted by European judges, while earlier this month, the French were once again accused of turning a blind eye to dinghies adrift in the Channel.

Meanwhile, the establishment’s continued hostility to Brexit, combined with a lack of a coherent government vision and a seemingly supine Cabinet more focused on political survival than the supply- side reforms the country has been waiting for, appears to have put the brakes on our post-Brexit prosperity.

Last week’s passing of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill through the House of Commons – with a majority of 59 and without amendment – appeared to mark a watershed moment after the parliamentary chicanery of the last term. Notwithstanding the inevitable attempts of unelected peers to put the kibosh on 4,000 Brussels-derived laws being scrapped by Christmas, the legislation – along with the swift passage of Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – reflects a degree of progress at last.

As veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, one of 28 original “Spartans" who thrice voted down Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in 2019, stresses: “People think things haven’t happened, but they certainly have constitutionally and legislatively.”

Having served on the European Scrutiny Committee since 1984, Sir Bill has seen all of the EU legislation that has passed automatically into UK law over the past 40 years.

“Because of section two of the European Communities Act, we could never repeal or ever reject a single piece of legislation in the whole of that period of time. I know because I was there. The Retained EU Law Bill finally unravels 50 years of continuous legislation since 1972, which is absolutely monumental in terms of impact.”

Describing Brexit as “a revolution on a scale equivalent to the glorious revolution of 1688”, he adds: “These massive changes do take time – and that’s without Covid, the war in Ukraine and an energy and cost of living crisis to contend with.

“The fact that both bills passed through the Commons with no amendments at all shows that even those colleagues who have this nostalgia for the European Union have now come to terms with Brexit.

“I say with the greatest respect to those who don’t vote Conservative that you can’t achieve change on this scale of historic importance if you haven’t got the power to pass a single piece of legislation. Before the general election, I posted on Twitter: ‘Remember that Nigel Farage cannot win a single vote in the House of Commons.’’. The Conservatives are the only ones who can pass the legislation and that’s what we’ve done.”

But does the electorate see it that way? With the Tories trailing Labour by 22 points according to the latest YouGov poll, the party appears to be haemorrhaging support, particularly in “‘Red Wall”’ seats. In October, polling guru Professor John Curtis calculated that loyalty to the Conservatives among 2016 Leave voters had nose-dived by a staggering 30 points.

Meanwhile, Reform, a party aligned with Mr Farage, has been creeping up in the polls to 9nine per cent – enough to guarantee that the Tories lose the next general election even without winning any seats in the Commons. (Indeed, as one No 10 source recently put it: “If Reform reach 10 per cent, we’re f----***ed”).”)

Yet even Mr Farage can see the scale of the task ahead. “Brexit, without supply side reform, Brexit without deregulation, Brexit without taking some of the economic advantages that were on offer, such as our fishing waters. Brexit without those things becomes very, very hard to make an argument for,” he admits. “Then you’ve got Brexit blamed for anything and everything; these ludicrous figures that it’s costing us three or four per cent of GDP. It’s very difficult to fight back on it. If you ask five- and- a- half million small businesses, ‘What’s Brexit given you?’ they’ll say: 'Nothing’. The EU has made moving goods to and from Europe much more difficult than it needed to be, so people are seeing the downside without any economic upside. That’s obviously a disaster.

“I’m told it’s all because of Covid. But actually, the Conservative party has been proved to be completely incapable on this issue. “Let’s face it, if I hadn’t have launched the Brexit Party and got rid of Mrs May, we wouldn’t even have left the EU, that’s the truth of it.”

During the referendum campaign, Mr Farage was the subject of a police complaint for inciting racial hatred after posing next to a poster of a queue of migrants, headlined “Breaking Point”.

“The poster, you might remember, caused outrage but I wasn’t wrong,” he adds. “What I was saying in that poster was: the EU’s asylum policy is a disaster, it’s coming to us, we have to leave these institutions.

“You can meet the posh boys of the Tory party who’ll tell you the Brexit vote was about matters of national sovereignty. Cobblers! Ultimately, why did we get a 73 per cent turnout which was 13 per cent more than the experts thought? Immigration and borders.

“When they voted for the Conservative party they thought Boris Johnson believed in sorting it out but of course he never did. They deceptively got those Red Wall votes without intending to do anything about it.”

Naturally, Mr Farage thinks we should leave the ECHR, which he points out is a separate institution from the EU but linked to the European Parliament building in Strasbourg by a corridor.

He hasn’t ruled out making a return to front- line politics, despite the success of his nightly GB News show. Yet if Reform does prevent the Conservatives from winning in 2024, – surely that will usher in a Labour government with Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s Remainer-in-chief, at the helm? (News that the former shadow Brexit secretary is considering hiring Sir Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s former Brexit negotiator, as his new chief of staff has only served to confirm suspicions of a sellout).

“David Lammy [the shadow foreign secretary]) made pretty clear in a speech this week that they are going to rejoin pretty much everything,” says Mr Farage. “Whatever Labour say about us not rejoining the single market and realigning with the EU, they have to say that because of the Red Wall, but what in effect they’ll do is BRINO [(Brexit In Name Only]).

“If you polled me now and asked me, am I happy with Brexit? Then I’d say no. But if you asked people, shall we overturn the whole thing? No, we can’t bear to face all that again.”

His claim is supported by research by Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, which found that while “Bregret is taking hold in Britain” – with only one in five people thinking Brexit is going well – – the case for rejoining is more complicated than #FBPE (Follow Back, Pro Europe) Twitter polls might suggest.

While one “poll of polls” recently gave rejoin a 14- point lead over staying out, when the public are actually told what would be required of Britain to rejoin (membership of Schengen and replacing the Pound with the Euro, for example) the lead for rejoin is “slashed to a barely statistically significant four points”. Prof Goodwin adds: “Feeling sceptical about Brexit is one thing, but wanting to rejoin the European Union is something altogether different.”

Mr Farage describes both Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt as part of the “globalist elite”. But interestingly, the consensus among Brexiteer Tories – even those who voted for Ms Truss – is that the Prime Minister is living up to his leave credentials.

As well as holding reasonably frequent meetings with members of the European Research Group (ERG), Mr Sunak “understands what needs to be done”, according to former Brexit minister David Jones, who is deputy chairman of the backbench caucus. He and DUP MP Sammy Wilson wrote a joint article for last week’s Sunday Telegraph calling for the Protocol to be “removed and replaced by other arrangements that respect the UK’s integrity and protect the EU single market”, arguing that it undermines the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. They say that only a system of mutual enforcement will restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, amid pressure for a deal to be agreed in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement on April 10.

“Mutual enforcement gives each party sovereignty, without there being any physical borders structures," says Mr Jones. "Each party is reassured that the other side is going to police the integrity of the single market of the other.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory Party leader, agrees. “The EU has accepted that the Northern Ireland Protocol isn’t working but that’s not the same as accepting it doesn’t work,” he says. “It was only ever a temporary patch up. Article 1 makes it quite clear the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement has primacy over everything and section 13.8 makes it clear that it is possible to change the Protocol both in whole or in part if both sides agree. Ireland and the EU weaponised it, stupidly, because they thought it would create the drive to get us back together. It hasn’t happened at all. Seventy-five per cent of those who live in Northern Ireland describe themselves as British, Northern Irish UK, not Irish.”

The general consensus among Brexiteers is that the Government has not done enough to dispute the negative and accentuate the positive around Brexit.

Mr Jones points to the fact that foreign direct investment into the UK has almost doubled since the referendum.

Sir Iain, who led the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGGR) that produced an independent report in 2021 on how to maximise the benefits from Brexit, adds: “The reality is, with Brexit, it was always going to take a bit of time to start understanding what we can do. But the TIGGR report is about moving our regulatory process back to common law base, which is a big change and that’s already started happening.”

Identifying “med tech” as a sector ripe for development, thanks to the amount of anonymised data stored by the NHS, he adds: “Med tech could be bigger than the financial services sector in time. So this isn’t just about scrapping GDPR which is a nightmare for small businesses. It’s about much more than that.

“The EU is killing Europe with overregulation. Its share of trade is falling like mad. Look at the state of Germany. So my point is the UK left at the right time. As we’ve emerged out of Covid, we are now free to get on with it. But we’ve got limited time, so we should be accelerating it.”

On Friday, the Chancellor gave a speech on cutting red tape in order to promote growth, following his plan to reform Solvency II – an EU-derived rule for British insurers that limits how much they can invest. A review of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (Mifid) 2 rule-book governing regulation around financial research is also being mooted.

According to David Davis, former Brexit secretary,: “There has been a comms problem. I did actually drop Rishi a note saying, ‘Why did we not pick up on the fact that we had the third- biggest tech investment in the world in December or pick up on the fact that in a survey of 4000 international businesses on the best place to do business, we came third – equal to Germany?’

“These are big things.

“First and foremost, this was about democracy – we keep forgetting that. My favourite quote about Brexit is: ‘I’d rather be a poor master than a rich slave.’ But I don’t think we will be poorer for it. We were told by the likes of Nissan that everything would shut down and people voted for Brexit anyway. Now, Nissan has expanded its business in the UK. Where are all these economic disasters?”

Unsurprisingly, Brexit poster boy Jacob Rees-Moggs, the former Brexit opportunities minister, is equally upbeat: “The advantage of Brexit is that we can now legislate for ourselves. We showed that during the pandemic when we got the vaccine going faster.

“There’s also the fact that we are no longer in the EU. Do you know that that’s saved us £191 billion by not being part of the Euro’s €2 trillion post-Covid bailout?. That would have been our share, but that money would not necessarily have been spent in the UK.”

As Commons leader, he helped to devise the Retained EU Law Bill. He adds: “The thing you have to remember about the EU is that it is designed from the outset to protect the producer. What we want to do is support consumers to make the cost of living cheaper.

“Imports will become much smoother for everybody – it’s a work in progress. Financial services, the biggest part of our economy, is being made more competitive by not being subject to EU rules. The Gene Editing Bill will improve farmers’ crop yields. There is a frustration in how slow government is, but turning a good idea into good law does not happen overnight. We formally left on January 31st but then we had a nine- month interim period – so actually we’ve only been out fully for two years. Things are happening.”

The challenge for the Government, three years on from our EU exit, is to persuade a sceptical electorate that it has not only got Brexit done but made Britain the better for it.