Vince Cable: "Why don’t you speak up about Brexit?"

Published on December 06, 2022

Public opinion is swinging against Brexit as the evidence mounts of the negative economic effects and the absence of tangible benefits. 

For the army of committed Remainers, the foot-soldiers on the marches for a People’s Vote, there is mounting frustration that the generals remain silent. Keir Starmer, once a hero of the pro-Europeans, is insistent that the objective of a future Labour government is ‘to make Brexit work’, not to find a way back through some form of association agreement or to re-enter the Single Market. 

My party, the Liberal Democrats, have been a leading champion of British participation in European integration since Jo Grimond took up the cause over six decades ago. We have a thoughtful policy of step-by-step re-engagement with the EU, but you require an enhanced auditory range of a bat to hear anyone speaking up about it. 

I came face to face with these frustrated campaigners last week at a European Movement event when I was on a platform with Michael Heseltine, Caroline Lucas and Seb Dance. The audience had been fired up by reading a succession of opinion surveys which suggest that as many as 56% of the public see Brexit as a mistake and as few as 32% think it was the right thing to do (YouGov).

We, the speakers, were able to elaborate on the well-evidenced case that Brexit has diminished business investment, trade and income levels, aggravated inflation and failed to produce new opportunities of any quantifiable benefit. But, in my view, we struggled to offer a vision to match the title of the event: ‘Battle for the Soul of our Country.’ 

It is very clear that there is a tactical issue facing Labour in the pro-Brexit Red Wall seats and the Lib Dems in winnable but “Brexitty” seats in the West Country. Telling the public ‘You got it wrong’ isn’t the most seductive message for sceptical voters who still regard their Brexit allegiance as stronger than their party preference. Nor should we exaggerate the swing in sentiment. 

A BMG survey for The I Newspaper suggested that 14% of voters would switch from Brexit to Remain in a fresh referendum, whilst only 7% would go the other way. Although the swing is enough to change the referendum result — not that one is in prospect — it remains the case that 80% of Leavers would vote the same way and many see the vote as crucial to their identity.

So the issue is not so much about rejoining now but about then fact that, as the BMG found, that more voters are beginning to regret the current form of Brexit and would be willing to accept EU rules in return for better trade ties. 

Pro-EU politicians also know that in this argument there is little appreciation of nuance and shades of grey. The Lib Dems’ disastrous 2019 election campaign was due in part to the commitment to Revoke Brexit. The commitment may have been heavily caveated but in the hurly-burly of an election campaign what came across was a seemingly arrogant and undemocratic disregard for whatever the electorate wanted, even Remainers were put off.

Any pledge made now to rejoin (when circumstances permit) can and would be interpreted as rejoining tomorrow. Small wonder that the leaders are cautious. It is therefore imperative that the approach of pro-Europeans must be – as has been stated publicly by the Lib Dems and the Greens – to take a step-by-step approach. In this, the ‘Battle for the Soul of our Country’, we need to speak louder. 

The tacticians and campaign managers will also argue that it isn’t necessary to raise the divisive issue of Europe. The government is making a good job of self-destruction without it. Instead of Brexit, the electorate is, in any event, more concerned about the cost-of-living crisis, rising interest rates and the state of the NHS, all of which have a link to the Brexit arguments. But – in the eyes of many – this link seems to be indirect; only recently is this starting to change. 

By contrast, the government is struggling to explain what it has done in 12 years in government. For its supporters, ‘getting Brexit done’ is a landmark achievement (even if it isn't ‘done’ yet and is not working). What we must remember is that, currently, there are more supporters of Brexit than of the Conservative Party. Therefore, it makes no sense for opposition parties to call for rejoining straight away. This could help with a recruitment drive for this Brexit government by reconnecting them with many of their lost Brexit voters. 

If the role of opposition parties is simply to oppose and to campaign on government mistakes, then it makes perfect sense to keep quiet about Brexit. But the reality is that the complex issues which are involved in negotiating a new set of trade arrangements, based on a Swiss, Norwegian or a bespoke model, are best addressed when your party are in government, when the political landscape in Europe is clearer, rather than in opposition. 

In the meantime, there is plenty of useful opposition work to be done in parliament: embarrassing the government over its divisions; pointing out the folly of attempts to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol; to scrap 3,800 (at time of writing) pieces of mostly benign and uncontroversial EU regulation in UK law; and to get Britain reclassified as ‘Asia-Pacific’ (to make our trade regime incompatible with the EU). 

But (and more buts) there is a danger of taking the Remain vote — now a majority and a large majority of younger voters — for granted. In Scotland and Wales there are Nationalist parties with a vocal and unambiguous commitment to restoring, at the very least, British membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. 

By concentrating on the Blue Wall and the Red Wall, UK parties may be overlooking the importance of Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke. If the Nationalists retain, or conceivably increase, their hold on Celtic Britain, it becomes more difficult to achieve a Labour overall majority or a Labour-Lib Dem majority. 

In addition, there is a strong anti-Brexit vote in London, parts of the South-East and the university towns. In these regions, a party which makes a strong pro-EU pitch might find that there are electoral rewards. 

Aside from narrow, short-term, electoral calculus, there is a deeper challenge to parties to define, in broad terms, their picture of the country’s identity and role in the world. The Labour Party was rescued from irrelevance when its leaders, especially under Blair and Brown, located Britain amongst the European Social Democracies. All the while the Lib Dems were long at ease with being European. No viable alternative has emerged in the UK since Brexit. 

In many ways the country appears lost, the latest research finds that a large majority felt that Brexit had diminished Britain’s standing in the world. There is little mileage in a Global Britain when the world is fragmenting into blocs and the party which champions the concept has its core support amongst inward-looking English nationalists. The big issue which this government has handled with real credit — the Ukraine War — revolves around Ukraine’s wish to be part of Europe (and a member of the EU) rather than Russia. 

The main UK opposition parties have to think about the institutional details of our relationship with the EU. But they have the opportunity — and a need — to brand themselves as unambiguously European, and shout about it. In the meantime the organisation leading the ‘Battle for the Soul of our Country’ and very effectively highlighting the disastrous consequences of Brexit is the European Movement, of which I am a proud Vice President. 

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