Conservatives are squandering Brexit

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during the British Chambers Commerce Annual Global conference, at the QEII Centre, London

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during the British Chambers Commerce Annual Global conference, at the QEII Centre, London

It is hard to believe that, a year ago, Sir Keir Starmer would have blithely announced that he would seek a new deal with the EU. The Labour leader was tarnished by his association with the campaign to block Brexit in the last parliament. He advocated a second referendum and came to be linked with the de haut en bas style of elite Remainers, many of whom treated Leave voters as a rabble whose opinions could be safely ignored.

Sir Keir has spent the past three years recanting, seeking to neutralise Brexit as a political issue for his party. Yesterday, however, he felt emboldened to commit a future Labour government to pursuing a closer trading relationship between the UK and the EU. His comments followed the owner of Vauxhall stating that it may have to close factories in Britain without changes to the terms of trade with Brussels. It said that the costs of electrical vehicle manufacturing in the UK may become unsustainable.

But this is not an inevitable consequence of Brexit, or of the deal that Boris Johnson negotiated with the bloc. Remainers might like to imagine that the only meaningful policy change that could boost UK prosperity is rejoining the Single Market or customs union (or admitting yet more migrants), but that is economic defeatism which could have been counteracted by a government committed to exploiting the practical benefits of our new freedoms.

Recent administrations have signally failed to do so. If manufacturers fear their operations will be rendered uneconomic by EU tariffs, surely the onus is on ministers to help to cut their costs in other ways – whether through lowering energy prices or reducing the burden of red tape. If Britain is gaining an unfortunate reputation as a difficult place in which to invest or do business, surely the Government should be acting immediately to correct this.

Instead, we have gone in the opposite direction, sharply increasing corporate taxes, persisting with the insanity of net zero within an unachievable time frame, and arguably out-regulating even the EU. Senior Conservatives appear embarrassed of even talking about Brexit, let alone defending it. Is it any wonder, then, that Nigel Farage now says the project has failed, blaming “useless” Tory politicians for mismanaging the UK’s exit from the EU? Or that Sir Keir is preparing the ground for Brexit’s at least partial reversal?

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