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‘When Will We Hear these Brexit Truths From an Opposition Leader?’

The UK’s real problem never had anything to do with the EU – but was about the lack of capable and honest political leadership, according to the former diplomat who resigned from the Foreign Office over Brexit

Photo: Tim Whitby/Alamy

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“For all the talk about ‘levelling up’ in this country, the far more pressing need is for us politicians, finally, to level with the British people. It is way past time to admit that all of us, from across the political spectrum – regrettably in my own party as well as in the Government – have not been honest with you about the real problems in this country. And how we all chose to exploit Brexit as a way to distract from our own internal political failures.  

I know many people are sick and tired of the subject. So this is not actually a speech about Brexit per se. But Brexit is the overriding context in which we are currently operating and which is making it harder to have an honest conversation about any of our political, economic or social problems. Until we can speak the truth about Brexit, we will not be able to speak the truth about anything – let alone come up with any realistic solutions. 

I readily understand why many people chose to support Brexit.

How could it not be seen as an attractive proposition, when for years so many unscrupulous politicians chose to blame Brussels rather than Westminster for their own poor policy decisions? When for years, too many unscrupulous journalists chose to propagate those same lies rather than call them out, in order to drive newspaper sales, audience figures or social media clicks. And when for years, too many unscrupulous figures chose to back Brexit – not as a genuine way to improve our country’s situation, but as a way to advance their own political careers.

Such people promised, with willful dishonesty, that Brexit would be the magic solution to all the UK’s problems. Voters were promised that it would bring back ‘our money’ from the EU, allowing us to spend more on our own services, such as the NHS, schools or police. They were promised it would allow us to “take back control” of our borders, so that we could attract the brightest and best migrants to our shores, while keeping out those we did not want. 

They were promised that we would be ‘able to have our cake and eat it’ – that we would still be able to trade easily with the EU, while simultaneously signing wonderful new trade deals with countries around the rest of the world. They were also promised that it would restore sovereignty to the British people, allowing elected MPs, not foreign ‘bureaucrats’, to have the final say over our laws and policies. 

Can any of us honestly say now that any of these promises have come true?

Is our country any more prosperous, united or happier now than before we left the EU? Is the NHS doing any better or is it still overworked and overwhelmed? Has our education system improved? Are our public services better funded? Are our trains running on time? Are our crime figures better? Is our inflation up or down? Are our supermarkets filled with attractive goods at cheap prices or are they struggling to keep shelves full and costs down? Are more people using food banks in our neighbourhoods now or fewer? Is there more money in your pocket now or less?  Are you richer or poorer? 

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What about our borders? Are we in better control of immigration now or worse? Are we better able to attract the labour we need or do we still have shortages in critical sectors of our economy? Are we doing a better job of managing undocumented migration, such as those crossing the Channel in small boats? Or are you worried that numbers are still going up, while our Government still doesn’t have a coherent or humane plan? 

Meanwhile, as a result of the loss of freedom of movement, has travel to and from the EU – for tourism, study, work or retirement – become easier or harder for British citizens? Does your new British passport help you get through EU Customs quicker or do you get frustrated at often being stuck in the slow channel marked ‘other nationalities’? 

As for ‘having our cake and eating it’, are we still able to trade with the EU – our biggest market – as freely as we did before or do businesses now experience more costs, paperwork, and hassle? If you live near Dover, do you see traffic moving smoothly to and from the cross Channel port or sometimes bogged down in miles long tailbacks?

Are new businesses and jobs being created in your community or are some of them closing down or relocating? Have the small number of new trade deals which the UK has signed since Brexit meaningfully boosted your local economy or only had negligible impact, while exposing vulnerable sectors like our farming and fishing communities to more competition, from overseas competitors with less rigorous standards? 

What about our sovereignty? Has Parliament used its new ‘sovereignty’ to pass better laws than before? Have our environmental, consumer, worker or safety standards significantly improved? Has the quality of our politics and governance got any better since Brexit? Do you have more trust in British government and institutions today than before?

Finally, have we, as a society, improved? Have we healed the divides of the Brexit referendum? If you were a ‘Remainer’, are you now reconciled to Brexit? If you were a ‘Leaver’, are you happy with how the deal has turned out? Have relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to stay in the EU, improved or become more strained? Has our public discourse generally become more civilised and respectful or does our society feel even more poisonous and polarised? Does the United Kingdom feel more united or divided since Brexit? 

Are you more optimistic for your children’s future or more pessimistic?

Perhaps some people’s answer to some of these questions may be yes. But I think, for most people at least – those willing to be honest to themselves – the answer to many of them must surely, and increasingly, be ‘no’. We can see it with our own eyes. We can feel it through our own experiences.

Whether you were originally in favour of leaving the EU, or of staying in, all of us can see that our country is not any richer, stronger, better run, or more harmonious since Brexit. Both Leavers and Remainers have a right to feel disillusioned and disenchanted. We were given a wholly unrealistic and unachievable set of promises. Is it any surprise that none of us got what we wanted? 

Unfortunately, there is no magic solution to our current plight. I need to be crystal clear here. I certainly don’t believe doubling down on Brexit – as the Brexit ‘Ultras’ suggest – will get us out of this current mess. They know their project is failing but, rather than own up to this, it suits them to argue that the only reason is because we don’t yet have ‘true’ Brexit – just like the communists used to cling to their fallacy that communism failed because it was not implemented properly. As they go down this doomed path, the extremists on the Government side are not only devouring each other, but threatening to take the whole country down with them. 

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However, rejoining the EU is not the solution either. 

This is because, just as the EU never was the root cause of our problems, so it can never be our saviour . The EU is no more or no less than what it always has been – a valuable community of allies, our nearest neighbours, and largest trading partners, but with its flaws, frustrations and idiosyncrasies. Often, in order to reach agreements, individual members states have to make certain compromises. This sometimes sat painfully with a proud country like the UK. Yet, it always made sense to cooperate closely with the EU, and always will, because collectively we benefit and are stronger together. 

When we were in the EU, we had a voice at the table. Regrettably, now that we are out, we have lost that influence and leverage – yet, because of the EU’s size and proximity, we are still affected by its decisions.

So, I firmly believe we have a vested interest in trying to restore closer cooperation with the EU on as many issues as possible and in a way which eliminates as many of the current barriers which have grown up between us. It might not be as good as what we had before, but it will certainly be better than what we have now. 

I also want to be clear that this is not making a commitment to rejoin the EU. I don’t ever want to rule it out. That’s a decision for the British voters. But, even if an overriding majority of the British people (way more than the narrow margin that voted to leave the EU) were to express a strong and repeated will to rejoin the EU, I do not see any easy, straightforward path back.

The longer we are out, the more our country will change, and the more the EU will change – meaning the calculations on both sides may shift. And the EU may not even want us back, or at least, on terms which we could accept. For, let us not forget, as the governing party did to our cost when they were negotiating Brexit, the EU also has a say in this. 

Instead, my one real commitment to you is that, from now on, my party will be the one which is not afraid to tell the truth, whether about Brexit or any other matter. We will not blame foreigners for our own home-grown problems. We will not talk down to you. We will level with you. 

Because the real problem in this country never had anything to do with the EU, but was about the lack of capable and honest political leadership here – in this country, not Brussels. I bitterly regret that in 2019 our party chose to go along with Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, even though we knew its flaws, because we also were afraid to tell the truth to voters. This was not political leadership, but political cowardice. This ends here and it ends now. 

Let’s not let Brexit divide and distract us any more. Let us address the weaknesses in our political system which lead to poor policy decisions by initiating a national conversation about our government and constitution. Let us try to rebuild and reunite our society by consulting all stakeholders, in all parts of our country, on our future. Let us begin our process of renewal and growth where it always should have started – here, at home, among ourselves. And let us do so with honesty and respect. 

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