Blog: Britain is going to rejoin the EU far sooner than anyone now imagines – The Telegraph

Let’s not beat about the bush. Brexit has become the madwoman in the country’s attic. Demonised, its spirit crushed, it looms over the UK like Mr Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre. Of course, Bertha – who sets fire to her husband’s bed and rips up Jane’s wedding veil – cannot be blamed for all the chaos that she causes. A rebellious force of nature, she is driven to insanity by repression and neglect. So, too, has Brexit been turned into a national psychodrama. With no plan to unleash its potential, it can only fester, stoking tensions in Northern Ireland and strangling small firms with red tape.

It is time for the Leave camp to start saying the unsayable: the Tories have made such a hash of Brexit that the project is probably now unsalvageable. Given Labour’s Europhile disposition, the window to lay the foundations for Brexit Britain was always limited to the Conservatives’ current reign. Now the end is nigh, and almost nothing has been achieved.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Northern Ireland. The EU and UK may have agreed this week to continue “scoping work” to solve the dispute over the protocol, even if the UK camp has admitted that “gaps remain”. Privately, however, it is acknowledged that Brussels has no intention of making anything more than the most cosmetic tweaks. Its strategy is to play for time until Labour – which it calculates to be an even softer touch – comes to power.

The amount of political energy that continues to be expended on the Northern Ireland impasse underlines the painful fact that Brexit failed at the first hurdle: the political class never got beyond treating it as a damage limitation exercise. Almost seven years after the referendum vote, the focus is still not on exploiting its benefits, but on intractable technical deliberations – in which, frankly, most people on the UK mainland long ago lost interest.

Indeed, the clock has totally run down on what were always half-baked efforts to set out a tangible long-term vision for Britain post-Brexit. And a Westminster system still dominated by people who were never all that enthused about leaving the EU in the first place is only partly to blame. The grave reality is that even those ostensibly committed to making the most of our new freedoms never really worked out how to do so.

In particular, the Brexit debate has fixated too much on questions of trade – with Remainers endlessly outraged at new barriers between the UK and the EU, and the government responding with performative (and often sloppily negotiated) deals with countries such as Australia. In contrast, almost no attention has been paid to opportunities around innovation – the chance to reinvent the country as a science superpower, for example, and to create a world-leading regulatory environment for tech firms – that would have, over time, demolished Remainers’ narrow assumptions about the economic impact of leaving.

Take the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill set to replace the EU’s innovation-crushing GDPR. It was only set out last May and, after endless delays and distractions, there is little hope of getting anything workable passed before the next election. With two years at most until the next election, it would be next to impossible now for the Tories to launch a wholesale review of regulation to jump-start ground-breaking research, or exploit our freedom from state aid rules to channel funding to specific projects – even if they were minded to.

Where are the Brexit Spartans? They don’t seem to be interested in this big picture stuff. They are too busy down in the trenches, fighting their last heroic battle – an attempt to force through a bill which aims to scrap 4,000 EU-derived laws by the end of the year. By failing to explain how specific sectors would benefit from divergence, however, many voters will be wondering what the point is.

This is how Brexit dies. The received wisdom in Westminster is that it will none the less live on, not as a material thing, but as a political phantom – a subject that both parties avoid discussing at all costs, as the referendum’s legacy stalks Parliament, deformed, inviolable, forgotten.

I fear that it is more likely that we end up rejoining the EU – and sooner than many people think. Not for the reasons the alt-Remainers believe, best expressed through their favourite cliche: nobody voted to be poorer. Brexit has not been an economic disaster, GDP growth has not collapsed compared to our European peers, while foreign direct investment has remained strong. The real problem is that nobody voted for nothing to change. And Brexit has not brought about the kind of national reset that millions of people expected. Instead, it is beginning to look slightly rubbish, even pointless.

If anything, the country is moving in a polar-opposite direction to what Brexit was supposed to entail. Leaving the EU was meant to result in the UK taking back control of immigration policy. Instead, the Government flees from a frank national conversation about the trade-offs between the economy’s insatiable appetite for cheap labour and the popular desire to limit numbers. Brexit was meant to make our economy more competitive. And yet the Government has increased taxes to a peacetime high as the big business lobby obstructs deregulation efforts lest it increase competition. Brexit’s only major achievement to date is that it has scathingly exposed the ineptitude of this country’s political class.

Unsurprisingly, the polls have shifted significantly in favour of Remain: while 54 per cent now think that it was wrong to leave the EU, only 35 per cent maintain that it was the right decision.

This may not mean that voters have any appetite for rejoining yet. But if we do so, it will not be as the result of an elaborate elite conspiracy. Sir Keir Starmer’s insistence that the matter is settled may well be genuine. But the political sands are shifting in ways that make a closer relationship with the EU inevitable. The Labour Party, to secure its longevity over the next generation, still has to win back Scottish – largely Remain – votes with a big political gesture. Should support for Brexit continue to plummet in the Red Wall, a policy change may become irresistible.

What of the Tories – the party that little over three years ago received a historic mandate to “get Brexit done”? If the first elephant in the room is that Brexit’s days are numbered, then the second is that the Conservative brand cannot possibly survive such an ignominious outcome. Could we finally see the emergence of a new centre-Right party that genuinely has a chance of taking power? As the revolution goes up in flames, this may be the only thing that can save it.

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