Ignoring Brexit - and the PM making it worse - is not going to solve Britain's problems

The problems are everywhere, and the supposed benefits are hardly anywhere to be seen

Boris Johnson was a major advocate for Britain's separation from the EU. Getty
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If you’ve seen the Disney movie Encanto, set in the magical mountains of Colombia, you’ll know there is one song that sticks in your mind. Part of the film’s storyline concerns a missing character, Bruno. For reasons not immediately known to the viewer, his family sing “We don’t talk about Bruno”, and you get the feeling it’s because Bruno has done something very bad.

When you say you are not talking about something, you are – paradoxically – already talking about it. It is an example of being “in denial”, defined by psychologists as choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid uncomfortable truths. Britain has been in denial for years about the uncomfortable truths of Brexit. Like the family in Encanto, the shadow of the thing which we deny leaves us singing that we don’t talk about Brexit, while all the time Brexit and its seriously negative consequences are everywhere.

Last Saturday, I drove to a festival in southern England. My route took me along the beautiful coastal road between Dover and Folkestone. The sea was blue, the cliffs gloriously white in the sunshine, the French coastline clear in the distance.

On this glorious English coast you can often see re-conditioned Spitfire planes from the Second World War, practising manoeuvres for aviation shows. But there is also a less lovely sight, the enormous queues of lorries trying to get to Dover. As I passed, they blocked the inside lane of the opposite carriageway, directed by police in small groups to the port. Folkestone is eight miles from Dover, and the queue of trucks took up most of the length of that road.

Meanwhile, according to the Daily Express newspaper, Bristol airport was “like a zoo” from early morning as passengers struggled to get on their planes. Manchester, Heathrow, Gatwick and other airports endure similar problems. Passengers have been advised to take only hand luggage as a result of staff shortages.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says that the travel chaos was “self-inflicted from the government” and down to “Brexit plus Covid”, and so post-Brexit immigration rules should be relaxed to allow EU workers to come back to the UK.

UK ports have suffered from large traffic jams in recent weeks. PA
Britain has been in denial for years about the uncomfortable truths of Brexit

It is true that some other European airports have also had problems re-hiring key workers too, notably Schiphol in the Netherlands. But suddenly the British taboo that “we don’t talk about Brexit” as the source of our many problems has been broken again and again. In the past week, the British National Farmers’ Union, along with environmentalists and health campaigners, has also become involved. They have publicly, and in separate ways, told the government that their new post-Brexit food policy is disappointing and vacuous. In its 2022 annual report the House of Commons Committee on Food and Rural Affairs (chaired by a Conservative MP) noted that post-Brexit problems are causing “crops to go unharvested and left to rot in the field, healthy pigs to be culled and disruption to the food supply chain” as a result of“acute labour shortages”.

There are half a million vacancies for farm workers in the UK, mainly as a result of Brexit and also the coronavirus epidemic. And then there’s Northern Ireland and the British government’s attempts to break the Brexit agreement Boris Johnson signed just a couple of years ago –although that’s a complex subject for another day.

The key point is that Britain’s years of not talking about Brexit have ended. And it’s not the big things – all that hollow posturing about “sovereignty” or Northern Ireland. It is the little things of daily life that cut through. The queues of lorries and passengers at airports; the crops rotting in the fields; increases in the price of European wines and other goods; extra costs and bureaucracy for importers and exporters; the falling pound; GDP facing a cut of 4 per cent; and a loss of respect for the UK abroad. And all the while “Brexit benefits” are as common as rainbow coloured unicorns.

The Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood now suggests Britain should rejoin the EU single market. That was once heresy. The Conservative Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan – to the astonishment of some – suggests that since the government has missed the “opportunities” of Brexit (whatever they are supposed to be), then clearly “we should have stayed in the single market”. Bizarrely, he adds, however, that “rejoining it now would be madness”.

With even prominent Brexit advocates now at least implicitly admitting Brexit is a disaster, two things are clear. First, Brexit is not the cause of all of Britain’s woes, but it has made the country poorer, weaker and more divided, and has produced no noticeable benefits for any ordinary British citizen. Second, “not talking about Brexit” is pointless, self-defeating and illogical. Brexit reality is – and always was – a badly thought-out exercise in British self-harm conducted by an ambitious prime minister who had no real idea what Brexit might mean in reality. But, to rewrite the song, we “don’t talk about Boris”, do we? Although, just like Bruno, and just like Brexit, we will be talking about him again before long.

Published: June 15, 2022, 7:00 AM