We seek it here, we seek it there. Yet Brexit is nowhere to be seen. Neither Labour in Brighton nor the Conservatives in Manchester wanted to utter the “B word”. Superficially at least, one might be led to believe that the prime minister has been as good as his word and “got Brexit done”.
And yet Brexit is everywhere. Discussed, sotto voce (and out of earshot of ministers) as a possible cause of fuel and food shortages. Muttered about as a drag on future growth. Hinted at as the reason why the UK can now do things differently and create what we are promised will be a “high-wage economy”. Brexit is done, but Brexit is not over.
This relative silence stems from several sources. First, boredom. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone can fail to be endlessly fascinated by the huge social experiment that is Brexit. But I am starting to realise I may not be wholly representative of the population. Five years of bitter debate and paralysing polarisation followed by 18 months of pandemic have left the public desperate to move on. There’s a reason why “get Brexit done” proved such a popular slogan.
Second, expectations. Whatever role Brexit might play in driving the shortages, its impact is relatively subtle and its interplay with other factors is complex. This, in other words, is a long way from the “‘cliff edge” of which many Remain campaigners warned us. The economic impact of Brexit was always likely to be more of a slow puncture than a dramatic blowout and its effects more slow burn than much anti-Brexit rhetoric implied. It is genuinely extremely difficult to tease out any Brexit drivers of our current economic malaise from the impact of lockdowns.
Third, there is polarisation and perception. As political scientist Sara Hobolt and her collaborators Thomas J Leeper and James Tilley have argued, one of the features of the “affective polarisation” that has characterised post-Brexit debates has been what they term “evaluative bias in perceptions of the world”. Simply put, Brexit identities shape our perceptions of what is going on. And indeed, their research suggests that Brexit identity has a greater effect than party identity in this respect. Little surprise, then, that Leavers do not really blame Brexit for the shortages.
Which takes us to the politics. You hardly need a doctorate in political science to realise the Conservatives are not about to point to Brexit as a cause of our economic travails. Given that Boris Johnson’s success in the 2019 election was largely down to his ability to put together a Leave-backing electoral coalition, he can bank on his voters’ reluctance to see Brexit as a reason for any economic problems they may face.
Insofar as ministers mention Brexit at all, they have happened on the tactic of portraying it as the key to unlock a new, high-wage UK economy. Yet, and for obvious reasons, little attention is paid to the question of how long or how disruptive this “transition” (as the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, termed it) might be.
As for Labour, the party has been reluctant to mention Brexit at all for much of the period since the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) came into effect. There were passing references at the party conference. Keir Starmer spoke of “making Brexit work”. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, drew links between cost of living crisis and the “Tories’ Brexit mess”. Yet there is precious little evidence of the kind of sustained and repeated attacks that would be necessary to entrench a link between the TCA and shortages on the shelves and at the pumps firmly in the public mind.
None of which is to say that this situation will endure. As economies recover from the shutdowns, they may well do so at different speeds and this might reveal something that looks like a Brexit effect. Thus HGV driver shortages are more severe in the UK than in other European states, partly as a result of Brexit. Broader labour shortages, notably in agriculture and social care, are also clearly linked to the decision to leave the EU. Should the UK’s economic performance diverge from that of its neighbours, it might become harder for the government to argue that the problems are global.
Which brings us to Northern Ireland. Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has argued that one reason the Brexit minister, David Frost, is so anxious to renegotiate the infamous protocol is the fact that the province seems to have been less severely affected by shortages than the rest of the UK. The Petrol Retailers Association has pointed out that there are no issues with the supply chain in Northern Ireland, attributing this to its different relationship with the EU’s single market.
Absent the renegotiation of the protocol that Frost has demanded and the EU has flatly refused, such differences might come to undermine the government’s claims that Brexit has not negatively affected the UK economy.
In addition, the full impacts of Brexit have yet to be felt. For one thing, the government has still not put in place the gamut of measures necessitated by the TCA to check imports from the EU into the UK, which will affect such trade.
Second, lockdown prevented most business travel. Consequently, service providers in particular haven’t experienced how the Brexit deal will transform visa requirements and other assorted paperwork in the sector.
Much will hinge on how the British economy fares in the months to come. In the event of inflationary pressures, or of continued shortages, and particularly if Labour is willing to hammer home a message linking these outcomes to the Brexit deal, the issue could come back to haunt the Conservatives. Indeed, there is already some, albeit limited, evidence that public perceptions of the Brexit process are shifting. A YouGov survey of 29 September revealed that 53% of people thought that Brexit was going badly.
And that’s without mentioning the possibility of a crisis. The French are talking about retaliation against the UK for what they see as its failure to honour commitments on everything from fisheries to the Northern Ireland protocol.
And a UK decision to suspend part or all of that protocol would raise the spectre of a tit-for-tat trade spat. How that could affect the economy and public perceptions of the government is simply too soon to tell.
However, the bottom line is that, for all the absence of Brexit from conference season, there is little reason to believe the “B” word has been banished from our politics for good. Brexit may be done, but it has far from done with us.