The Conservative Leadership Contest has Exposed the Big Lie About Brexit
Voters were promised better-funded public services and stronger employment rights after Brexit – Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are now offering us the opposite, reports Adam Bienkov
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One of the many strange things about this summer’s Conservative party leadership contest has been quite how little Brexit has featured in it.
For decades, the UK’s relationship with Europe has dominated the debate within the party and, yet, neither of the candidates to succeed Boris Johnson have had anything of substance to say about it.
Liz Truss, who was a passionate Remain campaigner before switching to Leave once the result came in, has said that she wants to maximise “the opportunities of Brexit”. But, along with her rival Rishi Sunak, she hasn’t explained what that really involves.
The cause of their reluctance is obvious. By any reasonable standard, Brexit is not working. Since leaving the EU wages have slumped, prices have soared and even immigration has remained at historic highs.
Not all of this is due to Brexit. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have both contributed significantly to the current crisis. But with every penny counting and the public sector under growing strain, the public has started to realised that cutting ourselves off from our closest neighbours has made a bad situation significantly worse.
Indeed, recent polling suggests that there has been a decisive shift in public opinion, with little more than a third of voters still believing that leaving the EU was the right decision.
Reversing that decision is not an option for either candidate – but neither is the status quo. If things remain as they are, the future of this Government, and even Brexit itself, will increasingly come into doubt.
So how do Truss and her colleagues plan to turn things around?
One clue came this week from Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who suggested that the real opportunity from Brexit comes from slashing the public sector.
“When I was appointed minister for Brexit opportunities and Government efficiency, I said that the two adjacent responsibilities were one and the same”, he wrote in the Telegraph. “Our departure from the European Union necessitates a re-thinking of the British state. This means going beyond ministers looking for fiscal trims and haircuts and considering whether the state should deliver certain functions at all.”
This is very much not what voters were promised.
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In both the 2016 EU Referendum and the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson promised that Brexit would actually lead to an increase in funding for public services, with hundreds of millions of additional pounds poured into the NHS every week.
Johnson also denied all suggestions that Brexit would be used as an excuse to slash workers’ rights and food and environmental standards, suggesting that the UK government would instead strengthen these after leaving the EU.
The messaging during the Conservative leadership campaign has been quite different. Both of the candidates, as well as their supporters in the media, have signalled that the UK is instead heading for a new age of austerity, with both also competing to suggest that they will tear up UK regulations inherited from our time in the EU.
The candidates delivering these messages are not ideally-placed to do so. Sunak, who went to one of the most expensive public schools in the country before marrying into one of the wealthiest families in the world, has spent his campaign saying that no additional funding should now be put into the NHS.
Asked this week by a former nurse about what he planned to do to tackle the growing crisis in hospitals – where patients are now routinely left on trolleys, or mattresses on the floor – Sunak said that his priority was tax cuts and ensuring that the NHS stops “swallowing up every pound everyone has”. He then added that he would introduce charging for those who missed appointments.
Truss has been less open about her plans for the public sector, aside from her aborted plan to cut the wages of people working outside London and the south-east.
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However, we don’t need to look too far to see where her instincts lie. A report she co-wrote for the Reform think tank in 2009 called for big cuts to public services and welfare, with new charges also introduced for seeing your local GP. Her resistance to providing new help for families struggling with surging energy bills, in favour of implementing corporate tax cuts, also gives us a clear indication of the direction in which she is heading.
The belief among those on Truss’ wing of the party is that cutting the size of the public sector is a requirement for unleashing Britain’s supposed post-Brexit potential. Yet this is just one part of the puzzle. In order to fulfil their plans, they will also need to cut large swathes of European regulations and protections.
Both Truss and Sunak have signalled during this campaign that they plan to do this, but neither have been clear about which regulations they will cut or why.
However, Rees-Mogg provided another big clue earlier this year, when he told The Times that leaving the EU would allow the Government to slash workers’ rights and food standards in order to “see who needs protection and who doesn’t”.
By slashing standards and regulations, Rees-Mogg and his fellow travellers believe that Brexit is an opportunity to turn the UK into a sort of low-tax, low-regulation, Singapore-by-the-Atlantic.
While this has been a long-term aim of many on the right of the Conservative Party, it is not a vision that is particularly appealing to voters. When wages are slumping and the public sector is falling apart, nobody wants to hear that the Government plans to slash funding for hospitals or reduce workers’ rights.
But this appears to be precisely where we are heading. Both candidates have vowed to bring in new legislation to make it harder for workers to strike, while Truss’ commitment to tax cuts means that further public sector funding cuts are inevitably on the cards too.
Some Conservative-supporting newspapers already appear to be priming the public for this eventuality, with former Conservative MP Matthew Parris writing in The Times this week that is is “time to decide which services are essential”.
“Local libraries? Leisure centres? Subsidised public swimming pools? Winter fuel payments for higher-rate taxpayers? Free school meals during holidays? Advice centres? Parenthood classes? Good things, some of them, but essential? We must be jolted into asking how citizens might band together to help voluntarily or even – good heavens! – actually pay for things,” he wrote.
Of course, none of this is what voters were promised when they backed Brexit. Nor will any of it make a meaningful, positive difference to people’s daily lives. And with public support for Brexit slipping away, neither candidate has a clear mandate for radically slashing the size of the state or for stripping people of their basic employment rights.
Yet, some six years after the public voted for Brexit, the harsh reality of life outside the EU is finally coming into focus – and it is a reality which the next prime minister looks set to enthusiastically embrace.