Public opinion shifts but will Britain look to rejoin the EU?

Rishi Sunak would be well advised to urgently develop closer ties with the European bloc

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, should develop closer ties with the EU, settle the Northern Ireland protocol issue and redefine Britain’s status. PA
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Remainers rejoice. Nearly two-thirds of Britons now support the holding of a referendum with a view to rejoining the EU.

A survey conducted by Savanta for The Independent found that the number of people opposed to another vote was down to less than a quarter of voters. Those calling for another vote make up 65 per cent, although there are timing differences. People who want a ballot immediately amount to 22 per cent; while 24 per cent said it should be held within the next five years and 11 per cent within six to 10 years.

Only 4 per cent think another vote should be in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, those who say “never” to a second referendum have fallen from 32 to 24 per cent.

The poll also found that 54 per cent now say Brexit was the wrong decision, up from 46 per cent last year, on the first anniversary of Britain’s exit.

A total of 56 per cent now think leaving the EU has made the economy worse, up from 44 per cent.

Half of Britons believe it has made the UK’s ability to control its own borders — a major Brexiteer promise — worse, up from 43 per cent to 50 per cent.

And the proportion who think it has weakened Britain’s global influence is also now 50 per cent, up from 39 per cent.

There’s no doubt that the drums are beating, that demands for a rethink are getting louder and more strident.

The evidence is stacking up: analysis from the London School of Economics shows that additional red tape caused by Brexit added £210 to the average household food bill in the two years to the end of 2021.

John Springford, at the Centre for European Reform, who tracks the impact of Brexit on the economy, calculates that tax revenues for the year to the end of June 2022 were £40 billion lower — this as Britain is hit by a wave of public worker strikes, with the government maintaining it does not have enough cash to meet their demands.

Business is fed up. The British Chambers of Commerce declared that Brexit is “not delivering”. Having surveyed 1,168 businesses, 92 per cent of them small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), researchers found that more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of those for which the Brexit deal is applicable said withdrawal was not helping them either increase sales or grow their businesses.

More than half (56 per cent) said they faced difficulties adapting to the new rules for trading goods. Almost half (45 per cent) said they were struggling to adapt to the rules for trading services. A similar number (44 per cent) had difficulties obtaining visas for staff.

We’ve got Brexit done, we’ve taken back control and it’s clear, we are paying the price. But try telling that to the Brexiteers. Quizzed on LBC radio whether there were benefits from leaving, Lord Michael Spencer, the City billionaire and former Tory party treasurer, said, “Yes, many.”

Pressed to name them, the peer cited: “European regulation … had been lumbered on financial services, which should be peeled off. And one of them which, of course, won't poll well, is take away the cap on bankers’ bonuses.”

That’s it, then. That’s what it was all for: so, the bankers could get bigger bonuses. Significantly, Spencer did not mention the trade deals struck with individual nations since Britain left. They too have been a disappointment. Even Brexiteers say so — more in private than public. But former minister George Eustice has broken cover to criticise the agreement with Australia, saying it “gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

Not so fast, Remainers. You can holler as much as they want but there is no prospect of re-entry, not in the near term anyway.

Politicians at the top of the main parties are under no illusion that the old wounds remain. Put simply, they’re not prepared to unleash that vicious national argument all over again. The EU, too, is ambivalent. There’s no doubt the EU is weaker for Britain’s absence. But it functions more smoothly. In Brussels, they do not miss the constant hectoring, frequently leading to downright abuse, and blocking tactics deployed by some of Britain’s Eurosceptic MEPs.

An EU triumph

The Franco-German axis is just as strong within the EU — more so, without an alternative — and there are few serious signs of any other member following Britain’s lead. Indeed, Britain’s failure to turn life outside the EU into unalloyed triumph is acting as a dampener for those tempted to try.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, andFrance's President Emmanuel Macron. The Franco-German axis remains strong within the EU. AP

So far, the UK government’s response to the complaints has been to point in general, airy terms to the advantages of exiting. This was a representative replying to The Independent poll findings: “We are taking full advantage of the many benefits of Brexit, and are restoring the UK’s status as a sovereign, independent country that determines its own future. We have taken back control of our borders, restored domestic control over our lawmaking and axed numerous pieces of bureaucratic red tape, saving businesses and consumers money across the country.”

Rishi Sunak would be advised, however, to take a more serious, realistic line, to urgently develop closer ties with the EU, to settle the Northern Ireland protocol issue and after that, to explore redefining Britain’s status.

The word “Norway” is being mentioned increasingly at Westminster, in reference to that country’s access to the EU single market as a member of the European Economic Area.

Given the lack of tangible gains from Brexit to date and the building sense of frustration, bankers’ bonuses notwithstanding — even Brexiteers should be able to see the sense in that.

Published: January 03, 2023, 2:15 PM