Voices: Keir Starmer campaigned against Brexit and lost. Will ‘Bregretful’ voters now reward him?

·4-min read
Starmer’s pledge to make Brexit work frustrates many in Labour’s pro-Remain membership but is in tune with public opinion (PA)
Starmer’s pledge to make Brexit work frustrates many in Labour’s pro-Remain membership but is in tune with public opinion (PA)

Are the tables turning on Brexit? Although the Conservatives still take pride in being the “Brexit party”, some Tory and Labour figures are starting to wonder whether the government has made such a hash of implementing it that there could be a “loser’s premium” for those who opposed it in the 2016 referendum. This might even boost the prospects of Labour and the Liberal Democrats at next year’s general election.

When Boris Johnson was prime minister, many Tories were confident there would be mileage in Brexit at the next election. They saw the issue as Keir Starmer’s achilles heel, as he was the architect of Labour’s 2019 election pledge to call a second referendum. We can hardly blame the Tories for wanting to replay their greatest hits; Johnson’s brilliant “get Brexit done” slogan appealed both to angry Leavers and fed up Remainers.

But the public has moved on, and no wonder. It's increasingly hard for ministers to deny that Brexit has harmed the economy – as predicted, there will be a 4 per cent hit to GDP while imports and exports will be 15 per cent lower.

The promised trade deals with non-EU countries have not yet brought dividends and the big prize of one with the US is firmly on the back burner.

This week Rishi Sunak’s government acted to prevent even greater economic harm, by shredding his Tory leadership election pledge to shred EU legislation. Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, angered fellow Brexiteers by opting for what she called the “pragmatic middle ground” by refusing demands to scrap all 4,000 EU laws on the UK statute book by the end of this year. Hardline Eurosceptics are screaming but their influence has waned.

The most recent opinion polls show that 58 per cent of people want to rejoin the EU and 42 want to stay out

But people are not clamouring to rejoin. “There is growing Bregret, but little appetite for Brejoin,” said Luke Tryl, director of More in Common.

“Brexit is far from the top-of-mind issue it was three years ago. It is rarely raised spontaneously in focus groups. Most people would rather it went away.” That voters are much more worried about the cost of living and the NHS than Brexit is good news for Labour.

Starmer’s pledge to “make Brexit work” frustrates many in Labour’s pro-Remain membership but is in tune with public opinion. Asked by More in Common which statement they most agree with, 29 per cent believe Brexit was a mistake and the UK should consider rejoining the EU, while 30 per cent think it was not a mistake but that “we need to do more to benefit from it properly” and 21 per cent believe “Brexit was a mistake, but it is done now, debates about rejoining would take up too much time and energy”. Only 11 per cent think “we have already benefited from leaving the EU” – an indictment of the Tories.

The Lib Dems, who ran on a “stop Brexit” ticket at the 2019 election, have raised eyebrows for not coming out strongly for Rejoin as Brexit problems mount. But their policy, too, nods to public opinion: “We argue for developing much closer relations with the UK’s former partners in the EU, to the benefit of British citizens and British companies; and we will work to create the conditions through which the UK is able to join the EU once again.”

This month’s local elections in England have added to fears among some Tories that the party might have squandered its historic opportunity to entrench the post-2016 realignment which allowed it to hoover up traditional Labour voters in the red wall. A BBC study of the local results found the Labour vote was up seven percentage points on 2021 in the most heavily pro-Leave wards. While the Tories were down 2.5 points in the most pro-Remain wards, their support was down 5.5 points in the most pro-Leave ones.

In the two recent elections when the Tories won an overall majority – 2015 and 2019 – Brexit was an issue on doorsteps. “We need a new Brexit for next time – but what is it?” one senior Tory told me. As Tory MPs digest the unpalatable local results, there’s a growing sense that delivering on Sunak’s much-trumpeted five pledges will not cut it.

Labour and the Lib Dems can fret less about being harmed by their pro-EU instincts as they try to demolish the red and blue walls which formed the Tories’ winning coalition in 2019.

The two opposition parties might get some credit for being proved right as the flaws of Brexit become increasingly apparent – without suffering a “loser’s penalty” by telling voters they made a terrible mistake in 2016 and promising to overturn their decision. In short, they can enjoy what Johnson always wanted: they can have their Brexit cake and eat it.