Lib Dems can make gains if we stand up for closer relations with the EU

Last week I had a chance conversation with a leading national ‘expert’ on Brexit. There was much talk about the state of UK-European Union (EU) relations including the Northern Ireland Protocol. I enjoy discussing wonkery, but in light of public support for Brexit reaching an all time low and increasingly articulated public anger, I raised public opinion. “Forget public opinion” came the answer. I was taken aback.

The remark reinforces suspicions about the conspiracy of public silence amongst political leaders, and seemingly some opinion formers, about Brexit. With the tide of public opinion turning and some journalists still discussing Brexit, politicians are missing a political opportunity if they do not reflect the growing breadth and depth of public anger.

Although politicians have been right to focus on the pandemic and the tragic implications of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in recent years, downplaying or staying silent about the European Union (EU) is increasingly misplaced. To advocate closer EU relations is not to refight old Brexit battles, but to address the ever present need to promote our security and prosperity and manage our most important international relationship with our European neighbours.

There is a serious risk that hard Brexit will outlive the current appalling Tory Government. On the basis of current opinion polls, Labour will form the next government. Labour leaders have repeatedly not only ruled out rejoining the EU, but also the Customs Union and Single Market. Labour’s five point plan to make Brexit work is piecemeal. Tory hard Brexit will therefore be replaced by Labour’s little better Brexit.

Politicians can of course argue Brexit/the EU is no longer foremost amongst voters’ concerns. Leaving the EU has indeed declined from being the major concern in September 2019 (with 73%) to fifth (with 17%) in November 2022. While the economy and health have shot up the agenda, there is clear evidence that leaving the EU has adversely impacted both.

If voters can draw a link between the cost of living crisis and Brexit. It isn’t beyond the wit of politicians to draw similar linkages. We should not forget Nigel Farage successfully raised the profile of the perceived lower priority issue of leaving the EU by linking it to the then top priority issue (immigration), especially in the run up to the 2016 referendum.

We know Brexit is not the source of all our national problems. However, political leaders can and should advocate closer relations with the EU as a partial solution, or at least draw linkages between leading voter concerns and Brexit. Advocating closer relations with the EU can help increase inter alia exports, foreign investment and growth, and make it easier to attract more workers such as EU health care professionals.

Recently Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reportedly floated a possible Swiss-style agreement with the EU, and Tobias Ellwood, MP, a former Defence Minister, has even gone so far as to suggest the UK might rejoin the Single Market. If even Conservatives can float closer arrangements with the EU, why are opposition politicians being so timid?

Conservative Hard Brexit and Labour’s little better Brexit provide us with a good political opportunity. We were the first nationwide party to advocate a longer term goal of rejoining the EU at its Autumn 2020 conference, and the first to elaborate a detailed policy paper (144) outlining steps towards closer relations with the EU. Many activists believe we could be more forthright articulating closer relations with the EU. We might attract more media coverage and support if we did so.

Voters and activists are crying out for politicians to articulate credible meaningful solutions to our current crises. Closer relations with the EU can and should be one of them.

* Nick Hopkinson is South East representative, Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and a former Director of Wilton Park, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office policy forum.

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27 Comments

  • Peter Martin 5th Dec '22 - 10:54am

    “If voters can draw a link between the cost of living crisis and Brexit. It isn’t beyond the wit of politicians to draw similar linkages. ”

    First of all we need to try to work out how much Brexit has contributed to our high inflation figure. We could look at our own figure of about 11% p.a. and compare this with German inflation reportedly as 11.3% but what does this tell us?

    Of course we could just pretend that the EU has very low inflation, by not mentioning that they too have a similar problem, and that nearly all our inflation is due to Brexit.

    https://www.reuters.com/business/retail-consumer/german-eu-harmonised-consumer-prices-up-113-yy-november-2022-11-29/

  • Adrian Sanders 5th Dec '22 - 11:07am

    Possibly true in Scotland, London, the South East and the University towns, but across the majority of constituencies that didn’t vote remain, it could be what stops voters paying any attention to us, as has been the experience of the past two elections. In my leave voting patch it is the cost of living crisis, access to health services and local issues that feature far more importantly than a desire to undo the referendum.

  • Peter Parsons 5th Dec '22 - 11:34am

    @Peter Martin, Brexit has added 6% to food prices:

    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/brexit-added-6-uk-household-000100130.html

    Everyone who shops for food can’t have failed to notice how much prices have gone up, and by a substantial percentage in many cases. I’m sure a lot of people would benefit from not having to find the share of that increase which is solely down to Brexit, and which therefore was avoidable with either no Brexit or a more sensible Brexit deal than the rubbish that Frost and Johnson have heaped on the UK.

  • Paul Holmes 5th Dec '22 - 11:37am

    Since the summer my Ward colleagues and I go out canvassing every week. Before that we aimed for once every 2 weeks.

    Virtually no one, of the large numbers of people we have spoken to, have mentioned Brexit in any shape or form -for or against.

    Usual disclaimer to try and prevent the false accusations about my views – the first vote I cast after my 18th birthday was to remain in the EEC IN 1975. In 2016 I voted and campaigned hard for Remain. We lost in 2016 however. The subsequent 3 year Reject, Re-run and Revoke campaign was not the resounding road to triumph that enthusiasts predicted. Quite the reverse in fact.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Dec '22 - 11:52am

    I am not entirely surprised that Paul has not found Brexit as a leading concern knocking on doors as a councillor. My question is did you ask them about Brexit and what response did you get? Hm, I thought not. If our party doesn’t start to raise the issue, then who will? As the majority of economists argue and most businesses know Brexit us the major cause of the collapse of exports and the high price of imports. It is economic illiteracy of the worst kind to pretend otherwise. Keir Starmer on the Today programme showed clearly his total ignorance on the whole issue. William is spot on

  • David Evans 5th Dec '22 - 12:01pm

    An interesting point Adrian, but I think you may well be over simplifying it a bit.

    Voters in those areas largely came to the conclusion we were irrelevant to their needs – or “A total waste of space” as one voter put it to me – a good while before the Brexit referendum. The damage was largely done between 2010 and 2015 when our leading lights all thought it was a good idea to trash the party activists in local election after local election every May, while supporting the Conservatives – Sorry Typo “Proving Coalition works.”

    Voters in those areas are now facing up to the consequences of their belief in the Tories, and enough of them are now realising that it is the Tories who are the problem and it is the Tories who don’t have a solution. Where there are activists prepared to put in the effort, we are once again making progress – unfortunately the 2,600 we lost under Nick will probably take 20 years or so before we get close to getting back.

    However, so long as we stop the new leading lights from driving us into another cul de sac by attaching us to every trendy new so called progressive idea and instead focus on the real problems most people face like poverty, ill health, lack of opportunity and poor housing etc etc, we can do it.

  • Barry Lofty 5th Dec '22 - 12:02pm

    I am not naïve ,we all know that inflation is infecting the majority of the worlds nations if not all, and we all know why, but the loss of trade, goodwill, cooperation and a combined strength formed with allies we share so much with was one of the most detrimental decisions taken by the UK, you only have to reflect on the leading advocates for Brexit to query the decision to leave and how it will affect the UK,s future economy?

  • If Liberal Democrats do not articulate policies addressing the crying need for closer relationships with the EU others will – and not just the Greens!

  • Cost of Living is the issue here in Cornwall as elsewhere. If you can marry that up with Brexit then that’s fine but rejoin cannot be a main platform. I spent the last campaign in St Ives trying to promote revoke and that was a disaster. When SirEd wakes up from his vow of silence cost of living will be the main battleground.

  • Paul Holmes 5th Dec '22 - 1:45pm

    Martin, I think that Sunak and the Tories have a lot of things to worry about but a wave of popular revulsion against Brexit is not one of them.

    In response to Nick’s article (not sure who William is!), I simply pointed out that of the many people I speak to (canvassing a cross section of society, door to door, not talking in a social media echo chamber), virtually no one mentions Brexit -for or against. It simply is not an issue that springs to most people’s minds, Rather they talk about energy prices, cost of living, ambulance wait times, shameful Government behaviour (Party Gate still gets regular reference on the doorstep) and so on. And yes Mick, the behaviour of the Local Council gets a mention too.

    Among expats in the European countries you and Mick Taylor live in, Brexit may be a hot topic. Among the 3,000 people my Ward colleagues and myself have talked to, directly, in person, on their doorsteps, over the last 20 months, it is not.

    My friend and former MP colleague Adrian Sanders has made the same point based on canvassing at the the other end of the country from me.

  • Peter Davies 5th Dec '22 - 2:01pm

    Cost of living may be the main issue but it will never be our issue. It’s the Tories issue (in a totally negative way). We only gain if we are putting forward a way of tackling it that is better than Labour’s. Negotiating closer ties with Europe has to be a part of that.

  • We get ourselves into a bit of a pickle over Europe. 2017 because we overstate the narrative. We should have stuck to the Referendum at the 2019 election and left it there, but we go overboard and distance ourselves from the reality on the ground.
    Now the best advice I can offer is that we just let the matter play out and do nothing that is seen as attempting to force the issue.
    After all some recent local by elections have shown where UKIP did not stand that their previous election percentage vote all but equalled the Lib Dem vote increase in those seats!
    Just stick to hammering the government for creating the majority of the mess we are currently in and barely mention Brexit, I say that as a fervent European.

  • Public opinion has shifted against Brexit yet Keir Starmer says he “agrees with the basic case” for it and wont reverse it.

    This leaves a real opening in the political market for the Lib Dems to be relevant again by saying “Brexit isn’t working and was never going to work” yet the leadership say nothing. I predict the next election will be another disappointment.

  • Peter Martin 5th Dec '22 - 2:51pm

    @ Peter Parsons,

    The 6% figure for food is over two years. So that would be 3% p.a. on inflation. Even so the paper you reference give a worst case 1.1% for the Brexit induced component of inflation. I’m sure it would be possible to cherry pick a suitable research paper and come up with a higher figure. Whatever you decide it is you should come up with at least some rational justification and stop giving the impression that all inflation problems are down to our not being in the EU.

    It’s pity that neither Liechtenstein and Switzerland are in the EU. You could then say that at least 8% was due to Brexit.

    https://tradingeconomics.com/country-list/inflation-rate?continent=europe

  • Paul. Reject, rerun, revoke isn’t really a fair representation of what happened though I agree “revoke” was stupid tactics. 2nd referendum was deal vs remain and would have been part of original legislation if Cameron was any good.

  • Peter Parsons 5th Dec '22 - 4:10pm

    @Peter Martin,

    At no point did I ever claim that all the UK’s inflation problems are down to Brexit, but it is definitely the case that, because of Brexit, UK consumers are paying higher food prices than they otherwise would be doing. That’s real money coming out of people’s pockets.

    There has also been a 22.9% decline in UK exports because of Brexit, and 42% of UK product varieties no longer exported to the EU because of Brexit.

    https://www.aston.ac.uk/latest-news/brexit-changes-caused-229-slump-uk-eu-exports-q1-2022-research

    I keep hearing about “Brexit wins”. Where are they? How are they making me (and others) better off?

  • The cost of living crisis and state of public services and housing are the top concerns for everyone – that doesn’t mean we can’t speak up loudly about Brexit/promoting closer links with the EU as well.
    For one, it sets us apart from the two main parties (it is a distinctive offering that many people do care about). And for two, it happens to be the right thing to do!

  • Graham Jeffs 5th Dec '22 - 5:12pm

    I have little doubt that increasing numbers of people recognise that Brexit is impacting negatively. That’s not to say they want us to re-join the EU – but that’s not what we need to be saying.

    However, It’s political folly to let the Leavers have a free ride and it makes absolute sense to spell out the alternatives now available to the UK.

    Why would one not do that? And what about all the Remainers who might now be thinking we have abdicated our responsibilities? We are in danger of appearing gutless and representing little more than a series of alternatives to promises and assertions being made by other parties.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Dec '22 - 5:25pm

    “And what about all the Remainers who might now be thinking we have abdicated our responsibilities? We are in danger of appearing gutless and representing little more than a series of alternatives to promises and assertions being made by other parties.”

    Seconded

  • The Sunday Times reported BoE numbers of 80% Ukraine, 10% covid, 10% brexit. But don’t forget that inflation (as reported) is prices movement over the previous year. So although Brexit still impacts on current costs of imports (largely in 2 bites: 1st June 2016 with the 10% fall in sterling, and 2nd in 2020 when we left the EU and UK/EU trade friction/red tape) but it doesn’t contribute much to the current 11.1% inflation figure because most of the negative impact on costs occurred in 2016/2020.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 6th Dec '22 - 9:54am

    I agree with the article. Looking at other comments it seems as though Nick Hopkinson is suggesting that we talk about nothing but Brexit, it isn’t at all, there is nothing to stop us talking about all the other key issues.
    Cost of living is mentioned by a number of people and yes that is a very important topic indeed, and Brexit plays its part in that.
    But there are other issues, not least climate change. It might not be top of the electorate’s agenda right now, but as a political party we should be raising it again and again – and relationships with the EU are important in that, pollution knows no borders.
    Unrest amongst key workers is hight on the agenda, but wait till the watering down of employment safeguards because of Brexit are dropped on people.
    The war in Ukraine is high on agendas, and how Putin loves seeing Europe splitting. Peace is what the EU was founded on, and that principle needs to remain.
    On the refugee issue, countries need to work together on coming to workable ways forward with justice and compassion at their heart. Systems of Humanitarian Visas need to be worked on throughout the EU, not France and the UK working together to be as inhumane as possible.
    We are an internationalist party and should be proud of it.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 6th Dec '22 - 9:54am

    part 2
    That is the policy side, and don’t tell me that those issues are not part of what our country needs to be talking about and are going to hit hard before much longer.
    Then looking at the electoral side of the argument. Elections need people on the ground to win, especially Lib Dems who are not going to be in media headlines, it is hard graft that wins election. Just think of how many of our members that are still of an age to go out there and campaign on the streets have joined the party because of Brexit. What is the point of being part of a party that is not going to fight for what they believe in.
    For goodness sake, let the party speak out on what is believes in. Looking at the last week’s press releases it says a lot about what we are against, but not enough what we are for.

  • Nick Hopkinson 6th Dec '22 - 9:57am

    Thanks for the many comments , in particular from Mick, Martin, Peter, Cassie, Graham and Peter. There appears to be a good consensus that closer trade and economic relations with the EU is one of the remedies which our party should be advocating loudly.

  • David Garlick 6th Dec '22 - 11:56am

    The question is about what is pragmatic, sensible and the right thing to do.

    Leave bhind how we got here and concentrate on where we as a country are going and a closer relationship with the EU is the right thing to do on every level.

    A sell on the doorstep needs the positives to be clear and measurable, the negatives too. should be a vote winner on economic terms and make sense to the public,

  • John Bicknell 7th Dec '22 - 9:14am

    I do think that opposition politicians are not picking up the shift in public attitudes with regards Brexit. Adrian Sanders and Paul Holmes may think it an irrelevance to most voters, but, as the article writer points out, the genius of Nigel Farage was in aligning an underlying grumble (the UK supposedly being told what to do by the EU), with issues that were far higher priority for voters. I live in a strongly Leave voting area, but I’ve heard people being supportive of the idea of rejoining the Single Market. Who will articulate this view if not the LDs? Is their only hope to hang on to Labour’s coat-tails, to try and pick up a few seats by virtue of a protest vote? That party’s leader only wants a ‘better Brexit’, and does not see PR as a priority, so only disappointment awaits that strategy.

  • Peter Hirst 10th Dec '22 - 1:55pm

    We will probably need to wait for a change of Labour leadership before it significantly changes its stance on rejoining. In the meantime we should articulate a closer relationship as part of a solution to our current woes. To do anything else is betraying our fundamental values while missing a golden opportunity to make some political headway.

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