Something truly remarkable is happening in Britain. And no, I am not talking about the fact that we have had three prime ministers this year (so far). Nor am I thinking about the first person of Asian background to be prime minister of the UK, Rishi Sunak, though his rise is indeed is remarkable. Nor, even, am I thinking about the seven weeks of total madness that was the government of Liz Truss. This short-lived period of self-harm caused so much economic and political dislocation that Mr Sunak and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt are being forced to take another few weeks to figure out how to repair the damage caused by their own Conservative party.
These changes are indeed remarkable, yet more astonishing than all of them – and underpinning every one of them – is the fact that the B-word is back in the British political vocabulary. The B-word is Brexit. It has largely been removed from British political discussions for some time. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed Brexit was "done," and so we shouldn’t talk about it any more. The Labour leader Keir Starmer decided that re-fighting Brexit was at best a waste of time and at worst would alienate Brexit supporting Labour voters. He therefore says very little about Brexit at all.
Television news reports often discussed all kinds of problems – long queues of trucks at British ports, trade dislocation, lines of British travellers at airports, lower growth than other European countries, the weakness of the pound and price rises for imported goods – with only occasional mentions of the B-word. But now, slowly, it has begun to sink in to the British political consciousness that not only is Brexit not "done", it is also a failure at every level – an economic, political and constitutional failure, with different parts of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland, most obviously) resenting Brexit for the damage that has been caused, and with more to come.
In the case of Northern Ireland, the result of Brexit has already been serious. It will get worse. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which used to be Northern Ireland’s biggest party, enthusiastically supported Brexit without ever explaining what the reality of their supposedly ideal Brexit would look like. They were against every Brexit idea put to parliament, yet still remain in favour of the idea of leaving the European Union.
The result of their confusion is the Northern Ireland Protocol – which they loathe, yet their political manoeuvring helped create. The Protocol in effect treats Northern Ireland as if it were still in the EU in terms of trade. But that means a border in the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The DUP have now brought down the devolved Stormont government in Northern Ireland. The result is talk of new elections, but new elections will solve nothing, except perhaps alienate voters even more. The DUP has already lost its position as the biggest party in Northern Ireland to the Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein. Historians will note that Northern Ireland was created in 1922 specifically to avoid an Irish Republican party ever holding power in Belfast.
The sad fact is that Northern Ireland has not ever appeared high on the priority list of some of our many recent post-Brexit prime ministers. Mr Johnson agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ms Truss had so little time in office she did nothing of substance about the problem. And now Mr Sunak has so many other things to think about, specifically the economy, that he appears to be too busy even to attend Cop27.
But if Northern Ireland is barely on his radar, Mr Sunak is also unlikely to admit that Brexit has been a disaster, even if others are beginning to do precisely that. The Brexit silence is over. The Financial Times has released an excellent half hour video on the impact of successive government failures. As they put it: "The UK's recent disastrous "mini" Budget can trace its origins back to Britain's decision to leave the European Union. The economic costs of Brexit were masked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine. But six years after the UK voted to leave, the effect has become clear." The FT film had three million views in a week.
A short factual BBC film on the same subject had more than a million views after a day or two. The political omerta, the silence about the core issue which has undermined four prime ministers since 2016, divided the Conservative party and led to a lack of leadership in the Labour opposition, is slowly being broken. Of course, merely talking about a problem does not solve that problem. But at least honestly recognising that Brexit is indeed a problem, and one so significant that it has now undermined a series of British governments, opens the way to minimising future damage. There is an opportunity here for Mr Starmer. In order to seize it, he has to break his own relative silence and start saying the B-word.