There is a marvellous moment in one of the great Fast Show sketches when, within seconds, the George Smiley-esque interrogator raises his hand in triumph because the prisoner has given himself away – blown it, as they say. Such a moment came last week, when, in his commendable efforts to settle the Northern Irish question, Rishi Sunak told the province how lucky it was to be in the European single market as well as the UK.
I should not wish to push the comparison too far, but it is certainly the case that before the euphoria accompanying the Windsor framework, the prime minister appeared to be a prisoner of the rightwing European Research Group (ERG), who are in cahoots with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP).
There is much speculation that, notwithstanding all the triumphalist spin and the splits in the ranks of some of the former hardliners, he still is. (More of which later.)
His words about the wonders of single market membership will certainly not have appeased the Brexit hardliners, but they are music to the ears of rejoiners such as your correspondent. In one sensible and crushingly obvious observation, Sunak, a Brexiter himself, has blown the case for Brexit. This should be a moment when the rejoin campaign reinvigorates itself, and forgets all this pessimism about “it’s going to take years”.
That it is going to take a long time is the depressing conclusion of an outstanding analysis by Sam Freedman of the Institute for Government, entitled – not depressingly – Getting Brexit Undone. Freedman emphasises how the now widespread recognition that Brexit is a disaster has shifted voter sentiment decisively, “leaving the major parties in a quandary”.
Although 54% of YouGov respondents say Britain was wrong to leave the EU and only 34% say it was right, as he says, “both the government and the opposition are studiously, and understandably, ignoring this shift in opinion”.
Now, personally, I am not sure about the “understandably”. But Freeman concludes: “I don’t know if Britain will ever formally rejoin the EU, but I would be very surprised if it doesn’t have a dramatically different relationship within a decade, and that may well include de facto, if not de jure, membership of the single market.”
Hang on a minute. Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator, has said the door is open now. And as Guy Verhofstadt, the former European parliament Brexit negotiator, said about Sunak’s remark that there was still unfinished business over Brexit: “Yes – reversing it.”
Hanging over this is the spectre of Boris Johnson. As the classical scholar and essayist Harry Eyres has written in the New Statesman, Johnson “believes himself to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill”. In fact, says Eyres, “he much more closely resembles a political figure of an earlier era, the charismatic Athenian chancer Alcibiades … serial betrayer”. As he notes, “Plutarch reports the misanthrope Timon saying to Alcibiades ‘Go on boldly my son, and increase in credit with the people, for thou will one day bring them calamities enough.’”
Brexit is a calamity. There were many lying culprits – and still are – but the crucial swing voter was Boris Johnson who, by all accounts, is lying in wait to try to unseat the prime minister.
But, mercifully, Sunak, in his encouragement to the Northern Irish to accept his deal, has given the game away. It is now up to the leader of the opposition to pick up the gauntlet. No re-entry to the customs union or the single market? Come off it! The political pages have been replete recently with how Keir Starmer has effortlessly scrapped previous pledges. It is time for the Labour leader to accept that he was right all along to be a remainer, and to be prepared to exercise real leadership and offer to lead this country in the right direction.
Day by day now one reads in the Financial Times and elsewhere of major investment decisions by corporations being subject to doubts about choosing the UK as a location because of, yes, Brexit.
I had many criticisms of Thatcherism and its impact on unemployment and social harmony, but one thing Margaret Thatcher got right was the importance of the single market and attracting Japanese, German and other firms to the UK. All this is now up for grabs by Starmer and his team.
Let us end this week with a little Labour history. Harold Wilson in 1964, like Starmer now, had ambitious plans for growth. The 1964-70 Labour government was inhibited in its ambitions by a lack of international competitiveness owing to an overvalued pound and a refusal to devalue until the markets forced the issue in 1967. This limited the scope of the National Plan. Starmer’s ambition for the fastest growth in the G7 is a tall order in itself, but will be even more difficult to realise if he doesn’t grab the opportunities of re-entering the customs union and the single market.
• This article was amended on 5 March 2023. An earlier version said “Plutarch reports the misanthrope Timon saying to Alcibiades ‘Go on baldly’.” This should have been boldly.