I was first elected in 2017, a year after the EU referendum, on a platform whose central pillar included opposing a hard Tory EU Brexit.
My first parliamentary term was defined by this issue. I vividly remember the seemingly endless late nights of “meaningful” and “indicative” votes; the obscure pieces of Parliamentary protocol resourced to force through various Brexit deals and scupper others. Even before Article 50 was triggered, the effects of Brexit were already wreaking havoc on our country.
There were a litany of deals proposed in this period, with variations on custom unions arrangements and single market access. However, none were as bad as the deal we now have.
Brexit was dishonestly sold as a means to liberate trade, to solve British productivity problem, and with more than a hint of hyperbole, to unleash a golden era of economic growth. But the reality has been the precisely the opposite.
OBR forecasts are now estimating that the post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal will reduce long-run productivity by 4% and decrease imports and exports by an enormous 15%.
Businesses have been buckled by unnecessary barriers and reams of red tape. They face costly delays in transit, mountains of paperwork at the border and endless VAT issues. Images of snaking lines of lorries backed up at Dover periodically broadcast across the media provide a potent portrait of the obstructions caused by our EU departure.
But the problems don’t stop at the border either. Post-Brexit immigration impediments have also caused businesses massive issues in recruitment, and have driven up costs with new visa requirements.
For a long time, the true impact of Brexit has been concealed. Shockingly, there has been no comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of Brexit on our economy, despite my consistent calls for a full Public Inquiry. But in the meantime, the emerging patchwork of evidence already paints a grim picture.
Chamber of Commerce survey data shows that half of all UK businesses report a decrease in demand since Brexit; half report struggling to adapt to new trading rules for services; half relate a decrease in demand; and half have faced issues securing visas for prospective employees. It’s no surprise then that 58% of companies believe Brexit will have no positive impact – a proportion which has steadily risen each time such surveys were held.
While certainly damning, citing statistics can make the issues caused by Brexit seem abstract and remote. But speak to any business owner –as I regularly do for those in my Battersea constituency– and the array of problems caused by Brexit are presented as a palpable and punishing reality.
One small business owner in my constituency, the operator of an urban winery, has experiences which embody the full spectrum of problems Brexit has imposed. His industry is one of the worst affected by workforce issues, with grape harvesting hamstrung by onerous visa impediments which effectively exclude low wage labour. Consequently, the cost of grapes has been driven up by half. Similar issues extend to all other core components of his product, with the price of glass up by a shocking 60%. The debacle then extends to distribution, with a 20% decrease in exports since 2016 due to newly imposed duty on wine. Nor is this being compensated by sales at home, with the company suffering weakened domestic demand in a slumping post-Brexit economy.
But it’s not just business interests which are being damaged by Brexit. It has entailed costs for consumers too, as the prices of trade, food and labour have all been pushed up. Accordingly, inflation is much higher here than for most of our European partners, with the cost-of-living crisis aggravated by Brexit. In short, Brexit has made us all worse off.
It’s time to stop the Tory Brexit damage denial. But while important, simply acknowledging the harm isn’t enough. We must now start taking serious action to restore relations with Europe as well.
I’ve started taking steps myself. My work with the Wandsworth European Movement, including a recent roundtable in Parliament with local business owners and Parliamentarians has been an important first step in starting the long work of finding constructive solutions.
But there often seems to be a lack of leadership elsewhere. It is perhaps understandable that political parties are reluctant to revive an issue which so recently and so seriously polarised the country. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the dial is now shifting on this issue. While a slim majority voted for Brexit in the initial referendum, it has shed support ever since, with less than a third of the public now believing we made the right choice to leave the EU.
Ironically, even Brexit’s most ardent erstwhile supporters now appear to be conceding the benefits of EU market access. Celebrating his renegotiation of the Irish backstop, the Prime Minister gushed about the privileged position of Northern Ireland now possessed in enjoying access to both UK and EU markets. He neglected to mention that this “uniquely” beneficial position was one previously enjoyed by the entire UK!
However, there is hope on the horizon. Labour has pledged to rewrite the Tories Brexit deal upon entering government. Further, Shadow FCDO Secretary David Lammy has signalled that reconstructing relations with the EU will be a priority from his first day in office. That day couldn’t come sooner.