Why Brexit is still tearing apart the government

Conservative Party whose Brexit divisions are as sharply delineated as ever they were. Credit: PA

It is the battle of the front-page splashes. The Sunday Times wrote the Sunak/Hunt government wants a Swiss-style relationship with the EU - which is shorthand for a reduction in the costs of trading with the EU's single market, at the price of following their product-standard and service-standard rules, and possibly allowing more EU citizens to work in the UK - while today's Daily Mail begs "don't betray us on Brexit". It is possible to dismiss all this as just an argument between rival newspapers with different ideological positions, especially since Downing Street has categorically denied there is any plan to ask for a more frictionless trading relationship with the EU.

But the reason the story won't die is because it's a case of politics and economics co-existing in an unstable state of destructive mutual antagonism. The point is that neither the economics or politics have changed since the referendum debate of 2016 and the civil war over Theresa May's Brexit plan of 2018-19. It was always the case that the UK would become poorer in direct proportion to the increased costs of trading with the EU's single market.

That has happened (doh!) and is relatively more painful at a time when the economy is in recession and our living standards are being squeezed till our pips squeak in agony. Securing better access to the single market is a rare lever that - in theory - could be pulled to get the UK back on a path of rising (or at least stabilising) prosperity. The drawback is that after the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election, there is no political mandate for a renegotiation with Brussels that would inevitably impinge on the unfettered ability of the UK parliament and the UK courts to set our own rules and standards. And perhaps more germanely, and as we've seen in just the last 24 hours, in the context of a Conservative Party whose Brexit divisions are as sharply delineated as ever they were, that even to suggest such talks with Brussels is to throw a lighted match into a giant gunpowder keg.

The explosion can be heard in deep space. So here's the point. The economic case for forging a better trading relationship with the EU is straightforward and obvious. And the politics is completely toxic. So here is the nightmare for the prime minister and chancellor. They'll say from breakfast till bed-time that a Swiss-style relationship with the EU is not on the agenda, but the Brexiters in their own party will never believe them, partly because their permanent way-of-life is vigilance against betrayal and also because the background economics mean this time they are right to fear betrayal.

Or to put it another way, none of this will or can be sorted till after the next election, the more so since it is in the interest of the Labour Party to be utterly disengaged in it all, in the expectation that (yet again) Brexit will tear apart the government.

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