Is it time to come out in favour of rejoining the EU?

Recently we’ve seen a Yougov poll putting support for Brexit at new lows, with just 32% of the British public overall and 70% of those who voted Leave thinking it was the right decision. We’ve seen stories of both the Tories and Labour denying that they have plans to rejoin the Single Market and/or Customs Union — with the implication that there is something to deny.

People’s Vote March
For a while I’ve thought the opposite on the grounds that people who voted Leave might find it easier to change their minds if we’re not telling them they were wrong. But, if 30% have already done that, things are different.

With neither Labour nor the Tories speaking up for the majority who now think Brexit was a mistake, is it time for Liberal Democrats to say what others are whispering: we need to rejoin? That’s about speaking up for the EU vision of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Europe with deep respect for democratic values as well undoing the economic harm done by leaving.

Experience may make us wary. In 2019 our promise to cancel the Article 50 notice if we formed the next government backfired: getting enough Liberal Democrat MPs elected to form a government would have been a political earthquake big enough to be a mandate for cancelling Brexit, but people recognised that earthquake wasn’t going to happen. Now we are in a different place. Starting the process of rejoining now would need enough support to mean that neither the EU nor the UK thought we’d try to leave again. That support would need to be shown at the ballot box. Are we at the point when Liberal Democrats can be the nucleus around which it can form?

Several things are striking me:

The Cost of Living crisis is partly about the invasion of Ukraine, and partly about the fallout of Covid19, but Brexit is adding a whole extra layer of self-inflicted pain — pushing up inflation and reducing growth. Economic reality is pushing the UK to rejoining and it’s easier for Liberal Democrats to say that than for parties ideologically committed to Brexit.
The UK rightly supports Ukraine in seeking to throw off the Russian invaders: how long can we ignore the fact that they are also seeking to join the EU?
Boris Johnson’s government sat on the report on Russia Report on interference in the British politics, including the referendum, until they’d won an election and made Brexit a reality. Putin’s behaviour over Ukraine underscores the seriousness of this. On top of doing serious harm to the UK’s economy and standing in the world, Brexit has heightened divisions in the UK. There’s an urgency to undoing it before the economic harm makes those divisions worse.

We may be ever further down the path than the Yougov data suggests. The Tories and Labour supporting Brexit gives it credibility: how many among their supporters would switch to supporting Rejoin if their party did?

After the next General Election?

Some Liberal Democrats might be wary because a clear commitment to rejoin the EU would rule out a formal arrangement to support a minority Labour government after the next General Election unless Labour changed their position. I think that is an exaggerated fear. We’re already at a point where a substantial proportion of our members and of those who vote for us would feel betrayed if supporting Labour made us “Brexit enablers”.

In any case Labour’s lead in the polls makes a minority government seem much less likely. But we are in a strange place where this is as much about a rejection of the Tories as it is active support for Labour. With no party clearly pushing for the UK to rejoin, it’s entirely possible that we will go into the next General Election with both Labour and Tories promising to continue with Brexit, taking for granted those who support rejoining, and claim the result as a mandate to prolong Brexit. If Liberal Democrats can put rejoining the EU on the agenda now we have the possibility of changing that, either by getting many more Liberal Democrat MPs elected, or by that prospect prompting Labour to change direction.

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