Why have Remainers gone silent as the costs of Brexit pile up? | Vince Cable

Why have Remainers gone silent as the costs of Brexit pile up? | Vince Cable
We hear about the ‘cost of living crisis’ but not the contribution made by the higher costs of EU imports

One of the strangest features of British politics is that the Remainer army has demobilised to the point that it is difficult to find anyone even willing to comment on the many negative consequences of Brexit, which are becoming more apparent by the day.

Perhaps those who warned night and day for more than three years about the dire consequences of Brexit now want to show respect to those who eventually won the argument at the ballot box, and do not want to appear to be churlish Remoaners saying “we told you so”. I would love to believe in such an improbable outbreak of grace and good manners in British politics.

The real reasons, however, are I suspect more to do with political calculation. Now that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are doing well and looking to do better, they must widen support from their English Remainer heartlands.

Labour must win the Wakefield by-election to demonstrate that they are once again competitive in red wall Brexit-voting seats. The Liberal Democrats have established that they once again have national reach by winning Hull in the locals but now aim to sustain their run of remarkable by-election successes in one or two seats in the Brexit-voting west country.

For Keir Starmer, anti-Brexit campaigning dominated his political universe during the Corbyn years; now it is as remote as Pluto. For the Lib Dems, Europe was the bright sun which shone through everything we did. The sun has now collapsed into a black hole from which neither sound nor light can escape.

The silence which has followed is deafening. We hear a lot about the “cost of living crisis” but not a peep about the contribution made by the higher costs of EU imports. Where is the ridicule for the absurd minister for Brexit opportunities, who is desperately trying to postpone the implementation of Brexit border checks on imported EU products, which no longer enjoy unimpeded access rights under single market rules?

Of course, the Ukraine war and post-Covid disruption to supply chains have played a part in pushing up costs too, but it is considered indecent to say that putting up trade barriers has created higher costs for British consumers.

Every politician loves to laud the achievements of exporters and to remind us that small business is the backbone of British enterprise. But their champions are now very coy about the hard evidence of the heavy toll Brexit is imposing. The Centre for European Reform does rigorous quantitative analysis to isolate Brexit effects on British exports. Its latest survey showed that British exports of goods to the EU are 15 per cent down from where they should be.

British Marmite has disappeared from European shelves; professional and financial services have been hammered too. Nor is there any offset in rising export costs outside the EU since these have been dragged down by disruption to EU supply chains which support non-EU exports.

The British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) has reported that half of its exporting and manufacturing members are having problems of “cost, delay and confusion” over EU trade and many established commercial relationships are being destroyed. I once debated Europe with the BCC’s former head – a confirmed Brexiteer – who assured me that any trade problems would be minor and temporary.  They are assuredly major and permanent.

Then there are the chronic labour shortages accentuated by the disappearance of European labour. And the British tourists who can’t use their European driving licences anymore.

To add to the self-inflicted damage, the government is talking up the possibility of a “trade war” with the EU by tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol which it negotiated to secure a Brexit agreement. The heightened uncertainty owes a lot to the foreign secretary. Her embarrassing attempts to be a Margaret Thatcher tribute – an Iron Lady single-handedly taking on Russia, China and Europe – are beginning to make even Conservative backbenchers cringe.

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Northern Ireland voted to remain; in Stormont assembly elections, it has just boosted the two parties most committed to close links with Europe, and nothing can now alter the fundamental point that for the whole island of Ireland to remain part of the single market and customs union requires border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

One of the supreme ironies of the post-Brexit world is that the politician now doing most to promote cooperation with the EU is Boris Johnson, through deeper military and political integration. Old Europe hands will remember that one of the most potent weapons in the rhetorical armoury of Brexiteers was that we were being dragged into the nightmare of a “European army”. It seems to be happening anyway through the most improbable channel.

If Britain’s Remainers wanted to break their vows of silence, the French president Emmanuel Macron has offered a way of reopening the conversation. His offer of “associate status” was designed explicitly for Ukraine but could apply to Britain.

It opens up the possibility of the kind of “variable geometry” once seen by pragmatic Remainers as the best device for keeping a sceptical UK within the European fold. Now is the time to climb out of the black hole, and talk about it.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015. His podcast ‘Cable Comments’ is available here