I can often rely on one of my swimming pals at the pool I use in Shipley to help me see something more clearly. This time it was Stuart from Bradford who metaphorically wiped my goggles.
Was I still hankering after rejoining the EU, he asked, referring to one of our previous conversations. If so I should forget it. We’ve slagged off Europe too often, he maintained. “Prince Harry’s got more chance of being welcomed back into the bosom of the Windsor family than we haveof forgiveness by Brussels.”
I had to agree with Stuart. Until then my fondest wish was that somewhere in Westminster there might be a think-tank drawing up a roadmap for our re-entry to Europe. I had even mused that on the seven-year-itch principle, which dictates that we become dissatisfied with our lot and want to change things every seven years – by the seventh anniversary of the vote to leave the EU this June there might be a growing mood for revisiting that decision, a mass realisation ithad been a colossal error that must be reversed.
But thanks to my friend Stuart the Sage I realise that for the foreseeable future there are no conciliatory words the country of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens could put together that would come close to rebuilding trust. Brexit looks as irreversible as Megxit now seems. As far as the EU is concerned the UK might just as well be off the coast of California. To paraphrase Prince Harry’s barb about Queen Camilla in his book Spare,the government sees Europeas its evil stepmother.
Among the insults we have hurled at Brussels, one of the worst was ex-prime minister Johnson comparing the invasion of Ukraine by Russia with the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Seeking popularity with the Tory head-banging right wing, the current chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the EU was like a Soviet Union prison. And no mention of UK insults of Europe would be complete without a reminder that Nigel Farage – still the politician the Tories fear the most – called the French “pipsqueaks”.
Meanwhile, evidence mounts that Brexit is a developing national disaster. It has already made us the second-worst performing economy in the rich world, the only G7 country still not back to pre-pandemic growth levels, and this year we are predicted to have the worst economic growth of anymajor country except Russia.
Yet whenever anything pops up that has a whiff of promoting ties with the EU it is immediately rubbished. This is what happened last month when the Rishi Sunak government was said to be seeking a closer trade relationship with Brussels that might require the UK to pay something into the EU budget. Cue the tail that wags the Tory dog, the European Research Group, saying they would “fight it tooth and nail”, while an incandescent Farage threatenedto come out of retirement.
All of which is depressing. It might be less so if Labour’s Keir Starmer wasn’t intent on keeping his powder dry on the subject of Brexit. “Make Brexit work” is his mantra, but I reckon he is in agreement with my swimming pal Stuart. There’s no conceivable way back. If they’d built a bridge over the channel instead of a tunnel it has been well and truly burnt.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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