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W.We look for it here, we look for it there. However, there is no sign of Brexit. Neither Labor in Brighton nor the Conservatives in Manchester wanted to pronounce the “B-word”. On the surface, at least, one might think that the Prime Minister kept his word and “managed Brexit”.
And yet Brexit is everywhere. Discuss sotto voce (and out of earshot of ministers) as a possible cause of fuel and food shortages. Mumbled as a stumbling block for future growth. Suggested as the reason Britain can now do things differently and do what we are promised will be a “high wage economy”. Brexit is done, but Brexit is not over yet.
This relative silence stems from several sources. First boredom. Personally, I don’t understand how one cannot be endlessly fascinated by the huge social experiment Brexit. But I am slowly realizing that I may not be entirely representative of the population. Five years of bitter debate and crippling polarization, followed by 18 months of pandemic, have made the public desperate to move on. It is not for nothing that “get Brexit done” has proven to be such a popular slogan.
Second, expectations. Whatever role Brexit plays in the scarcity, its impact is relatively subtle and its interplay with other factors is complex. In other words, this is a far cry from the “cliff” that many Remain activists have warned us about. The economic impact of Brexit has likely always been a slow hit rather than a dramatic outbreak, and its impact has been slower than many anti-Brexit rhetoric implied. It really is extremely difficult to tease the Brexit drivers of our current economic malaise from the effects of the lockdowns.
Third, there is polarization and perception. As political scientist Sara Hobolt and her co-workers Thomas J. Leeper and James Tilley have argued, one of the features of the “affective polarization” that characterized the post-Brexit debates is what they call “evaluative bias in perception of the world” describe. Put simply, Brexit identities shape our perception of what is going on. Indeed, their research suggests that Brexit identity has a greater impact than party identity in this regard. So it’s no wonder that the Leavers don’t really blame Brexit for the bottlenecks.
What leads us to politics. It hardly takes a PhD in political science to realize that the Conservatives will not point to Brexit as the cause of our economic troubles. Given that Boris Johnson’s success in the 2019 elections was largely due to his ability to put together an exit-support coalition, he can count on voters’ reluctance to see Brexit as the cause of any economic troubles.
For obvious reasons, little attention is paid to how long or how disruptive this “transition” might be
As far as the ministers mention Brexit at all, they have adopted the tactic of portraying it as the key to unlocking a new British high-wage economy. For obvious reasons, however, little attention is paid to the question of how long or how disruptive this “transition” (as business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng called it) could be.
As for Labor, the party has long hesitated to even mention Brexit since the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) came into force. There were temporary notices at the party congress. Keir Starmer spoke of “that Brexit works”. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, made connections between the cost of living crisis and the “Brexit chaos of the Tories”. Still, there is little evidence of the type of sustained and repeated attacks that would be necessary to firmly anchor a link between the TCA and shelf and pump bottlenecks.
None of this means that this situation will last. As economies recover from the shutdowns, they can do so at different speeds and this could reveal what looks like a Brexit effect. The shortage of truck drivers in Great Britain is more pronounced than in other European countries, also as a result of Brexit. A wider labor shortage, particularly in agriculture and social services, is also clearly linked to the decision to leave the EU. Should the UK’s economic performance differ from that of its neighbors, it could become more difficult for the government to argue that the problems are global.
What brings us to Northern Ireland. Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has argued that one reason for Brexit Secretary David Frost to renegotiate the infamous protocol is that the province appears to be less affected by congestion than the rest of the UK. The Petrol Retailers Association has indicated that there are no supply chain problems in Northern Ireland and attributes this to the different relationships with the EU internal market.
Without renegotiating the protocol demanded by Frost, which the EU flatly rejected, such differences could undermine the government’s claim that Brexit did not adversely affect the UK economy.
In addition, the full effects of Brexit are not yet being felt. For one, the government has still not taken the steps required by the TCA to control imports from the EU to the UK that will affect this trade.
Second, the lockdown prevented most business travel. As a result, service providers in particular have no experience of how the Brexit deal will change visa requirements and other paperwork in the industry.
Much will depend on how the UK economy performs in the months ahead. In the event of inflationary pressures or persistent shortages, and especially if Labor is ready to get a message across that links these results to the Brexit deal, the issue could re-pursue the Conservatives. In fact, there is already some, albeit limited, evidence that public perception of the Brexit process is changing. A YouGov poll on September 29 found that 53% of people thought Brexit is going badly.
And that without mentioning the possibility of a crisis. The French speak of retaliation against the UK for believing it is failing to meet its commitments on everything from fisheries to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
And a UK decision to suspend all or part of this protocol would raise the specter of a ti-for-tat trade dispute. How that could affect the economy and public perception of the government is just too early to say.
The bottom line, however, is that despite the lack of Brexit in the conference season, there is little reason to believe that the “B” word has been banned from our politics for good. Brexit may be over, but we are far from over.
Anand Menon is Director of UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Policy at King’s College London