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29 June 2023

Brexit won’t define the next election – but the one after that is a different story

Another five years of “Bregret” could push Labour in a much more pro-European direction.

By David Gauke

Last week’s anniversary of the EU referendum was accompanied by plenty of polling showing that Brexit is increasingly unpopular. One, commissioned by the Tony Blair Institute, showed that the British public favours rejoining the EU to staying out by 51 per cent to 36 per cent, similar to the most recent YouGov finding of 46-33. The Blair polling also shows that 78 per cent of the population want a closer relationship between the UK and the EU.

It seems at least some Leave voters are changing their minds. The deteriorating economy is forcing some to concede that Project Fear had a point.

At the same time, demography is taking its course. The 2016 referendum was something of a clash of generations. Leave had a big lead among those born before 1955; Remain had a big lead among those born after 1975. The main pro-Brexit vote is concentrated in a cohort that is only going to shrink. Meanwhile, those joining the electoral roll as they turn 18 are overwhelmingly pro-European.

The consequence of this is that public opinion is likely to continue to move in an anti-Brexit direction. “Bregret” (an ugly word but one we are going to hear more frequently) is becoming entrenched.

Despite this, it is striking that the main UK opposition parties remain determined to avoid the issue. There is talk of Keir Starmer saying more about Europe in the autumn but he will hold the line that the UK will stay out of the single market and customs union. A closer relationship can be achieved within these constraints, and parts of the economy would benefit. But there are other economic areas – car manufacturing, for example – in which the cumulative costs of Brexit will become more visible over time. The Brexit bad news won’t stop under Labour’s watch.

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Winning the Red Wall, however, remains Starmer’s priority. The Conservatives, struggling to articulate a reason for being re-elected in 2024, are looking for an excuse to run on a “Keep Brexit done” platform, even if it will only resonate to a minority of the electorate and will drive away the business and professional vote. Starmer does not want to risk giving the Tories the room to make that case, even if it would give him the room to articulate a more credible plan to deliver higher economic growth.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer doomed?]

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The Liberal Democrats share Starmer’s sensitivity to upsetting Leave voters. Having unsuccessfully tried standing for something at the last election, they have reverted to being a party of protest by avoiding the topic of the EU, opposing housing developments and offering the middle class bribes in the form of bailing out mortgage holders.

If Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not going to make something of the issue, Rishi Sunak is unlikely to break the truce. It would make him look obsessive and unserious. All of this suggests that Brexit will be something of a non-issue in next year’s general election. 

What happens after that, however, is another matter. Assuming the polls are accurate and Labour win, the Conservatives in opposition are likely to move to the right and bemoan the failure to grasp the (still yet unidentified) benefits of Brexit.

More interestingly, the pressure on Labour will grow as the limitations of their ambition become more apparent. Labour markets will remain tight, supply chains disrupted. The location of business investment will continue to be influenced by the relative lack of access to the European single market. Optimistic claims that Labour is making in opposition about what can be achieved in reducing trade frictions will be quoted back at its ministers.

As John Curtice has pointed out, electoral success for Labour in 2024 is likely to be “on the back of a predominantly pro-EU coalition of voters whom a Labour government might have to take care not to disappoint”. Internal Labour politics is also likely to play a role. As ambitious Labour politicians will have noted, Starmer will be 66 by the time he is seeking re-election in late 2028 or early 2029, older than any UK prime minister since Jim Callaghan lost office 50 years before. There may be an opportunity to lead the party, and, in a reverse of the recent Conservative dynamic, an unashamedly pro-European position is likely to be a vote-winner among Labour activists.

Even the Liberal Democrats might seek such a position. If they have advanced in the Remain-voting Home Counties, the new parliamentary intake may push for that. The Lib Dems might also want to differentiate themselves from a Labour government. This could be their issue.

Prime Minister Starmer, therefore, would face economic and political pressures to move in a more pro-European direction. And after four or five more years of demographic change from now, a Europhobic Conservative Party (assuming that is what it will become) would be eminently beatable on this territory. Starmer has already demonstrated a willingness to adapt his position to changing political circumstances. It is hard to see that he will not do so again.

Brexit is unlikely to be a big issue in next year’s general election. But when it comes to the general election after that, it could be a very different story.

[See also: Keir Starmer: my mortgage is up too, and Rishi Sunak doesn’t get it]