Brexit Turns 3. Why Is No One Wearing a Party Hat?
LONDON — The third anniversary of Britain’s departure from the European Union passed without fanfare on Tuesday, and why not? Brexit has faded from the political forefront, unmentioned by politicians who don’t want to touch it and overlooked by a public that cares more about the country’s economic crisis.
The severity of that crisis was underscored by the International Monetary Fund, which forecast this week that Britain will be the world’s only major economy to contract in 2023, performing even worse than heavily blacklisted Russia.
The I.M.F. only indirectly attributed some of Britain’s woes to Brexit, noting that it suffered from a very tight labor market, which had constrained output. Brexit has aggravated those shortages by choking off the pipeline of workers from the European Union — whether waiters in London restaurants or fruit and vegetable pickers in fields.
The effects of Brexit run through Britain’s last-in-class economy because they also run through its divided, exhausted politics. In a country grappling with the same energy shocks and inflation pressures that afflict the rest of Europe, Brexit is the dark thread that, to some critics, explains why Britain is suffering more than its neighbors.
“One of the reasons for our current economic weakness is Brexit,” said Anand Menon, a professor of West European politics at King’s College London. “It’s not the main reason. But everything has become so politicized that the economic debate is carried out through political shibboleths.”
Years of debate over Brexit, he said, had contributed to a kind of policy paralysis. “If you look at it, it is astounding how little actual governing has happened since 2016,” Professor Menon said. “It has been seven years, and virtually nothing has been done on a governmental level to fix the country’s problems.”
Those problems continue to proliferate. Inflation, though it has eased slightly, continues to run at a double-digit rate. Britain’s National Health Service is facing the gravest crisis in its history, with overcrowded hospitals and hourslong waits for ambulances. On Wednesday, Britain will face its largest coordinated strikes in a decade, with teachers, railway workers and civil servants walking off the job.
Not all these problems are wholly, or even principally, a result of Brexit. But tackling any of them, experts said, will require bolder solutions than the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has yet proposed. Owing largely to Brexit, Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party remains torn by factions that thwart action on issues from urban planning to a new relationship with the European Union.
Part of the problem, experts said, is that the neither the government nor the opposition Labour Party is prepared to acknowledge the negative effects Brexit has had on the economy. The government may not ring the bell of Big Ben to celebrate the anniversary, as it did on Brexit day in 2020. But to the extent that Mr. Sunak refers to Brexit, he still portrays it as an undiluted boon to the country.
“In the three years since leaving the E.U., we’ve made huge strides in harnessing the freedoms unlocked by Brexit,” Mr. Sunak said in a statement marking the anniversary. “Whether leading Europe’s fastest vaccine rollout, striking trade deals with over 70 countries or taking back control of our borders, we’ve forged a path as an independent nation with confidence.”
His predecessor, Boris Johnson, also cited the early authorization and rapid deployment of a coronavirus vaccine as proof of Brexit’s value — never mind that health experts said Britain would have had the authority to approve a vaccine before its neighbors, even it had been part of the European Union.
“Let’s shrug off all this negativity and gloom-mongering that I hear about Brexit,” Mr. Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. “Let’s remember the opportunities that lie ahead, and the vaccine rollout proves it.”
There is little evidence that Mr. Sunak and Mr. Johnson are convincing many people. Public opinion has turned sharply against Brexit: Fifty-six percent of those surveyed thought leaving the European Union was a mistake, according to a poll in November by the firm YouGov, while only 32 percent thought it was a good idea.
And the sense of disillusion is nationwide. In all but three of Britain’s 632 parliamentary constituencies, more people now agree than disagree with the statement, “Britain was wrong to leave the E.U,” according to a poll released Monday by the news website, UnHerd, and the research firm, Focaldata.
The three holdouts are agricultural areas around Boston and Skegness on the country’s eastern coastline, where immigration is still a resonant issue. And even in these places, public opinion about Brexit is finely balanced.
At the same time, few people express a desire to open a debate over whether to rejoin the European Union. The prospects of doing that on terms that would be remotely acceptable to either side are, for the moment, far-fetched. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, prefers to frame his party’s message as “Making Brexit Work,” having lost an election to the Tories in 2019, whose slogan was “Get Brexit Done.”
Britain’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the one leader who proposed radical remedies, Liz Truss, triggered such a backlash in the financial markets that she was forced out of office in 45 days. To restore the country’s reputation with investors, Mr. Sunak has scrapped her tax cuts and adopted a fiscally austere program of higher taxes and spending cuts that the I.M.F. says will curb growth.
“Although we no longer have lunatics running the asylum, we have essentially a lame-duck government that doesn’t have any semblance of a plan to restore economic growth,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London.
The trouble is that the bitter squabbling over Brexit has made obvious responses politically perilous for the prime minister. Even the I.M.F.’s projection for Britain’s growth ignited a storm of commentary on social media about whether it would help the cause of “Remainers” or reopen the Brexit debate.
The fund’s assessment was not completely gloomy despite its prediction of contraction in 2023. Britain, it estimated, grew faster than Germany or France last year. After inflation cools and the burden of higher taxes eases, it said, Britain should return to modest growth in 2024.
Professor Portes said that there were policies Mr. Sunak could pursue, from liberalizing planning laws to overhauling immigration rules to ease the labor shortage, that would stimulate growth. “If you put all those together,” he said, “there is a reasonable, feasible strategy that could make the next 10 years better than the last.”
But he added, “Any coherent strategy involves repairing the economic relationship with Europe, and that will depend on the political dynamic.”