Sunday 20 November 2022

Briefing Bregret

If there has been consistency between the last four Prime Ministers, it's been a desire to get Brexit done and put distance between the UK and the European Union. It was only a couple of months ago that Liz Truss couldn't decide whether Emmanuel Macron, the president of a nation that's been in alliance with the UK for 120 years, was friend or foe. And today, The Tories are set on delivering Britain to Brussels on a platter. Well, not quite. But the report in the Sunday Times has upset a lot of people. Apparently, Rishi Sunak is looking at developing a "Swiss-style" relationship with the EU. This would mean the removal of tariffs and checks but also, horror of horrors, could allow some influence for the European Court of Justice, contributions to EU coffers, and compromises on the freedom of movement. Some people are not pleased if the right wing froth on Twitter is anything to go by.

This comes with caveats. The report speaks of Britain's relationship with the EU evolving in this direction over the next decade, albeit with Sunak looking to cut deals sooner rather than later to knock the irksome corners of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal. Neither are the EU especially keen to repeat the Swiss arrangement any time soon, but it should be remembered the UK is an order of magnitude more significant (economically speaking) than Switzerland and that Brexit's impact has been felt across Europe as well. There are plenty of businesses on the continent who'd like to see the relaxing of trade barriers. But the politics of this for Sunak are difficult. He might have been a true Brexiteer, but his stronger grip on political realities tends him toward ameliorating the UK's strained relationship with the EU. He can't be anything but aware that the growing consensus among the "sensible" elements of his class that the damage done has to be mitigated.

On the other hand, the Brexit fundamentalists are concentrated on his side of the Commons. Sunak already has a legitimacy issue in that he studiously sidestepped an open contest in front of the membership. And while he has kept some of his would-be enemies close, such as Suella Braverman and Steve Baker, I doubt this would be enough to becalm the backbenches worried that the "achievement" of Brexit could vanish. With a rebellious mood abroad over some aspects of Jeremy Hunt's budget, it might encourage the awkwards to get a little bit awkward. In the medium term, there's concern for the Tories' right flank as well. Some of the more racist elements of Tory support have defected to the continuity Brexit Party, trading these days as Reform UK. And what do you know, Nigel Farage has piped up again with the threat to "crush" the Tories should the government take the Swiss road. Hard to see how he can without EU elections to ponce off, but grifters are gonna grift.

Being seen to renege on Brexit, however, is potentially dangerous to the Tories' shrinking coalition. A lot depends on the attitude the press are going to take. The problem with Truss's budget is she blew up the economy for the benefit of a few hedge funds and everyone, including most of the capitalist class, have paid the price with an unstable pound, skittish money markets and surging inflation. Are they going to play along with the "sensible" consensus, or use it as they have done with Braverman, Dominic Raab, and Gavin Williamson to try and push the government around?

Sunak is walking a tightrope. To his right are the gnashing teeth of Tory irreconcilables and the Brexit ultras. And to his left lies an increasingly confident and combative-sounding Labour Party. The polls continue to have the Tories in doom territory, and the Prime Minister's flat footedness, as per the Swiss briefing here, mean more trips are likely before the final fall.

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