A perverse consensus is emerging in British politics that simultaneously accepts and denies that Brexit has failed. The prime minister and the leader of the opposition are both shopping for European policy in the narrow aisle between economic grasp of the problem and political fear of the remedy.
No one likes the status quo. Enthusiasts for Boris Johnson’s deal lament that its terms have been diluted and its spirit betrayed. Betrayal was always part of the plan, but it was supposed to be Brexiters defiantly flouting their treaty commitments to Brussels, not a Tory prime minister quietly reassembling functional relations.
Rishi Sunak mouths the requisite platitudes about Brexit benefits, but his actions display recognition that the country had been steered into a ditch, and it was time to stop angrily revving the engine.
He signed the Windsor framework, reaffirming terms of the Northern Ireland protocol that Tory hardliners hated. He swerved away from the legal cliff-edge that would have seen heaps of retained EU law drop into oblivion. He ditched the requirement for a UK-specific safety certification, accepting that the mainland European one would apply for the foreseeable future. He rejoined Horizon, the EU’s cross-border science and research cooperation programme. He postponed the (already long-delayed) implementation of customs checks on goods being imported from the continent.
Each of those decisions is a micro-refutation of the case for Brexit. Sunak has internalised the banal fact that a country is diminished when it raises barriers to commerce with the huge trading bloc on its doorstep.
A hard Brexit has hurt British businesses, stoked inflation and dampened growth. The prime minister must know it, but cannot say it aloud. That is only half of the dishonesty. The other half consists in pretending that the problems are mere glitches in a programme that, with a bit of tinkering, can be made to run more smoothly.
Interference with European trade is the whole point of Johnson’s model. Leaving the single market was meant to propel Britain on a trajectory of divergence from Brussels rules, making reintegration with the EU ever harder as the years go by.
The theory was that release from European regulations would give Britain a competitive edge. The reality is that the widening gap between a smaller jurisdiction and a much larger one causes supply chains to snap. Investors prefer the bigger market, and expect regulatory compliance from their partners in the smaller one.
UK ministers, being absent from the European Council, lose their say in the formulation of rules, but British manufacturers end up following the directives anyway, if they want market access. The symbolic moment of retaking control gives way to gradual surrender of economic sovereignty and slippage down the international pecking order. An automatic downgrade in national wealth and status is encoded in the ideological software of Brexit, and wired into the treaty hardware of Johnson’s deal.
Keir Starmer seems to understand the problem better than Sunak. The Labour leader is more candid than the prime minister in lamenting the cost of friction at the border. He has spoken about the need for a better deal. But he is complicit in the fiction that substantial improvement is available without reopening the question of single market access.
There are two reasons not to start that conversation this side of an election. First, the single market comes as a package with free movement of labour. Any hint of a return to open-door immigration is electoral halitosis coming from the mouth of a Labour leader. Second, a commitment to align with European rules without a seat at the table where decisions are made looks like regulatory vassalage on terms that Eurosceptics used to complain about when Britain was an EU member. (They were wrong then, but would have a point now.) Passive submission might be an economic price worth paying in some industrial sectors but not all – and it is not an easy sell politically.
Starmer’s position on all things European is calibrated with hypersensitivity to public opinion, specifically the mood in those “red wall” seats where former Labour voters endorsed Brexit. Subtle shifts in tone – sounding punchier on renegotiating the deal while still ruling out a return to the single market – reflects a judgment about what is becoming permissible and what is still taboo with that target audience.
But there is growing pro-European pressure from other angles, and opinion polls suggest a growing number of voters who do not doubt the rottenness of Brexit. There are Labour supporters who feel demoralised by compromises that sound like acquiescence to a Conservative agenda. Business leaders want to know that an incoming Starmer regime will be more attentive to economic reality than the Tories. European leaders want to believe they can do business with Britain under Labour in ways that have hitherto been unavailable. Sending that signal is the purpose of Starmer’s meeting with Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week.
There are limits to what goodwill can buy. Starmer has pointed to an automatic review of the Brexit deal, scheduled for 2026, as the opportunity for an upgrade. In Brussels, that process is viewed with more modest ambition. It is a chance to discuss implementation of a treaty as written, not an invitation to rewrite it. Negotiating big changes would take years and burn up administrative energy the European Commission would rather deploy elsewhere.
There is a tendency in British debates about Europe to imagine symmetrical interest on the other side of the Channel. But the EU has moved on. Brexit is cited as a cautionary tale against Eurosceptic populism, not lamented as a loss to be recovered. Britain’s rupture from the single market was painful all round, but the wound is only septic on one side.
Starmer can count on a certain diplomatic dividend in Europe from sheer relief at no longer having to deal with Brexit fanatics. But that will be balanced against the prospect of a Tory resurgence down the line. (This is also one of many reasons why there is no available pathway simply to rejoin the EU on the now-forsaken terms.) Friendly vibes get a warmer atmosphere in negotiations but are not instantly convertible into major concessions.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing that a Labour prime minister can offer to get better terms of trade. But the case has to be compelling, and built around the EU’s appraisal of its own interests. That takes the conversation into big global issues where Britain, as a large European economy (even accounting for some Brexit damage) can make a difference – joining up energy markets; collective action on climate change; defence and security cooperation; helping rebuild Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there are small things that can be done to lubricate the sticky border. Starmer has already identified some of them. Sunak will discreetly do as many of them as his party will allow. But the real prize – a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship that moves Britain closer – will mean zooming the lens out much wider. It will mean a sustained argument based on long-term, shared continental goals. It will have to rise above commercial quid pro quo, making the case for strategic realignment and institutional partnership with the European project on terms that have no precedent.
Harder still, to sell that vision abroad a prime minister must also win the argument at home. There is a way to fix Brexit, but it requires leadership that is willing to make the case for Britain’s destiny as a European country in terms that have been absent from the national conversation since long before the referendum. And time is already running out.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist