S ince the 2019 general election, there has been a mutually convenient conspiracy of silence between Britain’s two main parties about Brexit. Boris Johnson won the election on the soundbite promise to “get Brexit done”, and then behaved as though all aspects of the UK’s departure from Europe were now fully sorted. The Labour party, meanwhile, licked its wounds, tacitly accepted that Brexit was indeed settled, and decided not to mention the subject if it could be avoided.
The Covid emergency then provided understandable cover for both positions. Now, however, as Covid perhaps recedes and something akin to normal politics resumes, silence has become impossible to maintain. Many aspects of Brexit are neither done nor dusted. Some are contributing to increasingly serious national problems. These include issues of trade, movement, education and, above all, the status of Northern Ireland. It is high time that these again became part of national political debate, not least because mishandling them could have a dire effect on Britain’s ability to deliver an adequate climate crisis deal in Glasgow in November.
Mr Johnson does not talk about Brexit’s practicalities today, any more than he ever did during the referendum campaign. When he mentions Brexit at all, it is to taunt Labour with being bad losers. He acts, probably with focus-group backing, as if Conservative voters continue to see Brexit as a great emotional issue of reclaimed sovereignty, not a set of still-evolving practical relationships for which government must take responsibility. These relationships need to be settled in ways that are consistent with the 2016 vote while avoiding unnecessary economic, constitutional and international damage. However, Mr Johnson and his minister David Frost still prefer the politics of confrontation to the politics of rational compromise, even over the vexed issues of Northern Ireland.
Sir Keir Starmer seemed content to go along with all this during the first 18 months of his leadership. He knows that there is no point refighting a battle he would lose, or reopening wounds that have barely healed. This autumn, however, something is changing. The trigger has been the large-scale disruption of supply chains in fuel, pharmaceuticals and food caused by the shortage of HGV drivers. This threatens not just panic at the pumps and empty shelves in the shops, but also a crisis at Christmas. All are, in part, the consequence of the sloppy handling of Brexit. Blame for that can be widely shared. But Sir Keir would be failing in his task if he did not take the fight to the government over its lack of planning for these crises. He needs to talk turkey.
In his conference speech, Sir Keir decided to reopen the previously well-padlocked Brexit box a little. He attacked Mr Johnson for a Brexit policy that amounted to little more than a slogan. He identified sorting out Britain’s relationship with Europe as one of the key issues of the day, along with the climate crisis, Covid recovery, economic regeneration and stopping the break-up of Britain. And he came up with a phrase of his own – the need for a plan to “make Brexit work”. These words may mean something or nothing. But they are a good sign, as far as they go. Now it is the Tories’ turn to get serious. The issues of implementation are real and pressing. They require policy planning, not partisan posturing from Britain’s leaders.