Blog: The Guardian view on Brexit heresy in the government: reality begins to bite – The Guardian

The short, disastrous premiership of Liz Truss is beginning to look like the endpoint of a political trajectory that began with the Brexit referendum in 2016. The spectacular detonation of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget by unimpressed markets was the moment when ideology met reality, and the Conservative party’s sovereigntist delusions were finally tested to destruction. In its aftermath, the high tide of Brexit has gone out, and a slow voyage back to economic sanity at last appears to be under way.

On Monday, Ms Truss’s successor, Rishi Sunak, was obliged to spend much of his visit to the CBI conference in Birmingham denying suggestions that the government was hoping to pivot to a closer Swiss-style relationship with the European Union. Switzerland enjoys significant and profitable access to the single market, and participates in EU research and education programmes, while making payments to the EU and aligning with its law. According to a Sunday Times report, government figures have privately discussed the possibility of just such a relationship for Britain. “Let me be unequivocal about this,” Mr Sunak countered robustly. “Under my leadership, the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws … I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know that Brexit can deliver.”

There is no reason to doubt the prime minister’s word on this. Already vulnerable as he embarks on a programme of tax rises, Mr Sunak knows that hardline Brexiters in the Tory party (enthusiastically assisted by the Daily Mail) would attempt to bring him down rather than countenance such a betrayal. When Theresa May floated something similar to a Swiss-style arrangement (the doomed Chequers deal), it proved to be the beginning of the end of her premiership. The European Research Group moved against her and Boris Johnson seized his chance.

Nor are there grounds for thinking that Brussels would play ball with what amounts to reheated cakeism. As the damage done by Brexit to the British economy plays itself out, the EU has no reason to revisit its position that Britain cannot enjoy those aspects of the single market which appeal to it, while rejecting those that don’t – such as the free movement of people. There will thus be no Swiss-style accommodation with the EU under the present government. But the fact that influential figures in Mr Sunak’s government felt able to brief such heresies to the press tells us something important.

According to polls, the number of Britons who believe it was a mistake to leave the EU now stands at 56%, compared with 32% who stand by the decision. Releasing its economic forecast before last week’s autumn statement, after being previously sidelined by Mr Kwarteng, the Office for Budget Responsibility stated baldly that Brexit had delivered a “significant adverse impact” on trade. The public has also noticed that Britain is the only G7 country still to have a smaller economy compared with before the pandemic, and has the worst growth rate. The flagship post-Brexit trade deal with Australia was “not actually a very good deal”, according to the former environment secretary, George Eustice.

The public’s take on these cumulative pieces of bad news – delivered as the country prepares for a record fall in living standards and a prolonged recession – is coalescing into a new common sense: the hard Brexit that Mr Johnson orchestrated, and on which Ms Truss attempted to double down, has palpably failed. For Mr Sunak, the leader of an ungovernable, divided party, it is – as he surely knows – too late to rescue the situation. But for Keir Starmer’s Labour, the Swiss speculation is another sign that an opportunity is opening up.

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