Jhe brief and disastrous premiership of Liz Truss is beginning to look like the culmination of a political trajectory that began with the Brexit referendum in 2016. The spectacular detonation of the Kwasi Kwarteng mini-budget by unimpressed markets was when ideology met reality, and the Conservative party’s sovereignist illusions were finally tested. In its wake, the high tide of Brexit has died down and a slow return to economic sanity finally appears to be underway.
On Monday, Ms Truss’ successor, Rishi Sunak, was forced to spend a large part of his visit at the CBI conference in Birmingham, denying suggestions that the government hoped to pivot to a closer Swiss-style relationship with the European Union. Switzerland enjoys significant and cost-effective access to the single market and participates in EU research and education programs, while making payments to the EU and aligning with its legislation. According to a Sunday Times report, government figures have privately discussed the possibility of such a relationship for Britain. “Let me be unequivocal about this,” Sunak replied vigorously. “Under my leadership, the UK will not pursue any relationship with Europe that is based on alignment with EU laws…I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know the Brexit can be effective.”
There is no reason to doubt the Prime Minister’s word on this. Already vulnerable as he embarks on a program of tax hikes, Mr Sunak knows that hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party (enthusiastically assisted per the Daily Mail) would try to bring him down rather than accept such a betrayal. When Theresa May launched something similar to a Swiss-style arrangement (the doomed Checkers deal), it turned out to be the beginning of the end of her term as prime minister. The European research group opposed her and Boris Johnson took his chance.
Nor is there any reason to think that Brussels would be playing ball with what amounts to warmed cakeism. As the damage Brexit has done to Britain’s economy is felt, there is no reason for the EU to back down from its position that Britain cannot enjoy the aspects of the single market that it pleases, while rejecting those who are not – such as the free movement of people. There will therefore be no Swiss-style accommodation with the EU under the current government. But the fact that influential figures in Mr. Sunak’s government felt able to inform the press of such heresies tells us something important.
According polls, the number of Britons who think it was a mistake to leave the EU now stands at 56%, compared to 32% who maintain the decision. Publishing its economic forecast ahead of last week’s autumn statement, after being previously sidelined by Mr Kwarteng, the Office of Budget Responsibility declared bluntly that Brexit had had a “significant negative impact” on trade. The public also noticed that Britain is the only G7 country to still have a smaller economic compared to before the pandemic, and has the worst growth rate. Flagship post-Brexit trade deal with Australia was ‘not really a very good deal’, according to former Environment Secretary George Eustice.
The public’s view of this cumulative bad news – announced as the country braces for a record fall in living standards and a prolonged recession – coalesces in a new common sense: the hard Brexit that Mr Johnson orchestrated and on which Mrs. Truss attempted to overtake, evidently failed. For Mr Sunak, leader of an ungovernable and divided party, it is – as he surely knows – too late to save the day. But for Keir Starmer’s Labour, the Swiss speculation is another sign that an opportunity is opening up.