WWe look for it here, we look for it there. However, Brexit is nowhere to be seen. Neither Labor in Brighton nor the Conservatives in Manchester he wanted to pronounce the “B word”. On the surface at least, one could lead one to believe that the prime minister has kept his word and “achieved Brexit.”
And yet Brexit is everywhere. Discussed, sotto voce (and out of earshot of ministers) as a possible cause of fuel and food shortages. Muttering like a drag on future growth. Hinted as the reason the UK can now do things differently and create what we are promised will be a “High wage economy”. Brexit is done, but Brexit is not over.
This relative silence comes from various sources. First, boredom. Personally, I do not understand how anyone can stop being infinitely fascinated by the huge social experiment that is Brexit. But I’m starting to realize that it may not be fully representative of the population. Five years of bitter debate and crippling polarization followed by 18 months of pandemic have left the public desperate to move on. There’s a reason “getting Brexit” turned out to be such a popular catchphrase.
Second, expectations. Whatever role Brexit may play in driving shortages, its impact is relatively subtle and its interaction with other factors is complex. This, in other words, is a long way from the “cliff edge” that many Remain activists warned us about. The economic impact of Brexit was always more of a slow puncture than a dramatic outburst and its effects slower than the anti-Brexit rhetoric implied. It is really extremely difficult to identify the Brexit drivers of our current economic malaise from the impact of the lockdowns.
Third, there is polarization and perception. As a political scientist Sara hobolt and his collaborators Thomas J Leeper and James Tilley have argued that one of the characteristics of the “affective polarization” that has characterized the post-Brexit debates has been what they call “evaluative bias in world perceptions.” Simply put, Brexit identities shape our perceptions of what is happening. And indeed, their research suggests that Brexit identity has a greater effect than party identity in this regard. It’s no wonder, then, that dropouts don’t really blame Brexit for the shortage.
Which brings us to politics. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to realize that conservatives are unwilling to point to Brexit as one of the causes of our economic woes. Given that Boris Johnson’s success in the 2019 election was largely due to his ability to form a partisan electoral coalition, he can count on the reluctance of his voters to see Brexit as a reason for the economic problems they may face.
To the extent that ministers mention Brexit at all, they have adopted the tactic of presenting it as the key to unlocking a new high-wage British economy. However, and for obvious reasons, little attention is paid to the question of how long or how disruptive this “transition” (as business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng dubbed it) could be.
As for Labor, the party has been reluctant to mention Brexit for much of the period since the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (ATT) entered into force. There were passing references at the party conference. Keir Starmer spoke of “Make Brexit work”. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, made links between the cost of living crisis and the “Conservatives Brexit disaster.” Yet there is very little evidence of the kind of sustained and repeated attacks that would be necessary to cement a link between the ATT and the shortage on the shelves and in the bombs firmly in the public mind.
None of which is to say that this situation will endure. As economies rebound from closures, they may do so at different speeds and this could reveal something that looks like a Brexit effect. Thus, the HGV driver shortage is more severe in the UK than in other European states, partly as a result of Brexit. The wider labor shortage, especially in agriculture and social assistance, is also clearly related to the decision to leave the EU. If the UK’s economic performance differs from that of its neighbors, it could be more difficult for the government to argue that the problems are global.
Which brings us to Northern Ireland. Stephen Bush of the New statesman has argued that one of the reasons Brexit Minister David Frost is so eager to renegotiate the infamous protocol It’s the fact that the province appears to have been less affected by the shortage than the rest of the UK. The Gasoline Retailers Association has noted that there are smoothly with the supply chain in Northern Ireland, attributing it to its different relationship with the EU single market.
In the absence of the renegotiation of the protocol that Frost has demanded and the EU has flatly refused, such differences could eventually undermine the government’s claims that Brexit has not adversely affected the UK economy.
Furthermore, all the impacts of Brexit have not yet been felt. On the one hand, the government has yet to implement the range of measures required by the ATT to control imports from the EU to the UK, which will affect such trade.
Second, the blockade prevented most business travel. Consequently, service providers in particular have not experienced how the Brexit deal will transform visa requirements and other red tape in the sector.
Much will depend on how the British economy fares in the coming months. In the event of inflationary pressures, or continued shortages, and particularly if the Labor Party is willing to deliver a message linking these results to the Brexit deal, the problem could come back to haunt conservatives. In fact, there is already some evidence, albeit limited, that public perception of the Brexit process is changing. A YouGov poll September 29 revealed that 53% of people thought Brexit was going wrong.
And that’s not to mention the possibility of a crisis. The French are talking about retaliation against the UK for what they see as its breach of commitments on everything from fishing to the Northern Ireland protocol.
And a UK decision to suspend part or all of that protocol would raise the specter of a tit-for-tat trade dispute. How that could affect the economy and public perception of the government is simply too early to tell.
However, the bottom line is that despite the absence of Brexit in conference season, there is little reason to believe that the “B” word has been banished from our politics forever. Brexit may be done, but it is far from over with us.