Published:

19 comments

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Agreeing a deal that Eurosceptics and EU officials can live with was a stunning victory for the Government – and for Boris Johnson personally.

Eighteen months ago, he took control of a shambolic and humiliating negotiation process – and a party devastated by Nigel Farage in the then recent European Parliamentary elections. He immediately massively boosted the party’s ratings and won a landslide election; and he has ultimately secured a deal that many said would be impossible.

The media would ordinarily be awash with analysis about the scale of the Prime Minister’s win, and his unassailably strong position. How many others of those who have held his office can point to such a victory ever – let alone in such a short space of time?

But he’s not getting the credit that even opponents in the media would briefly grant him: Covid overshadows everything. As such, it’s possible the Government will never see the political benefit of having “got Brexit done” before people begin to ask: “how will Brexit work for me?”

We’re three years away from the beginning of the next election campaign, and the Government must show voters that the trauma of Brexit was worth it. We can hardly be surprised by or annoyed with Emmanuel Macron’s recent claims Brexit was built on lies; what else can he say to his own irritated electorate – that the British had a point?

But the French President’s recent comments are the latest reminder that Johnson’s Leave campaign promised that things would be better when we left the EU. And the Prime Minister must therefore prove it.

What does that mean in practice? Anthony Browne’s summer series on this site and his recent article on the same subject list a series of practical suggestions about how the Government might use post-Brexit powers. This is a good place to start. Below, I set out some more basic political priorities the Government needs to meet if it’s going to maintain public support.

Let’s deal with the obvious first: immigration. The public did not vote for lower immigration per see; they voted for control over borders. This is not a distinction without a difference; it really matters. The mass of the working class and lower middle class in England are happy for significant levels of immigration if the economy needs it, and if the “right” people are coming to the UK.

For “right” people, don’t read “white”; rather, read “socially important” – care workers, nurses and other NHS staff above all. But given the domestic economy looks set to take a battering, the public will expect immigration to be reduced significantly, and for most of the new arrivals to be doing socially important roles. This is non-negotiable; if by the end of 2023 the scale and nature of immigration into the UK looks the same as in previous years, the Government will be in a shocking position across provincial England.

Secondly, another obvious one, the Government needs to prove the NHS has benefited from Brexit. That pledge on the bus will be met, not least because of the massive spending on healthcare to deal with the Covid crisis. But Vote Leave’s subtler but more potent pledge during the referendum was that it would be easier to secure a hospital or GP appointment – effectively, because reduced immigration would reduce pressure on services, particularly in big cities.

Perhaps the Government will find Covid has reset the entire debate on healthcare and everyone will be interested in new priorities. But there’s at least a fair chance that they will be judged on speed of access. Those devastating “waiting room” ads Vote Leave ran in 2016 could come back to haunt the Government.

If these first two challenges are “simple, not easy”, then the third challenge is neither simple nor easy. The Government needs to create a pro-growth economic policy that maximises its position outside the EU – and they must do this before the public demands that post-Brexit economic freedoms are used for bailouts and potentially counter-productive “buy British” campaigns.

This needs explanation. In the EU referendum, while leading Government figures did not explicitly promise to bring large-scale steel-making back to Britain, Vote Leave nonetheless benefited from the political fallout from the decline of British Steel – which led people to see how EU rules prevented the Government from taking action to support the steel industry.

Very soon, amid the post-Covid downturn, it is a certainty that various major businesses are going to hit severe trouble – and the public will demand that the Government uses new economic freedoms to bail these businesses out. Similarly, voters will soon start to demand that pretty much all public procurement exercises end up with victories for British-based businesses. “What’s the point of Brexit”, they will ask, “if we aren’t using it to support British businesses?” Of course, they will have a point.

Without a strong free-market, low-tax, post-Brexit narrative – backed by real action – the Government risks being dragged into a quasi-corporatist economic policy reminiscent of the sort of policy we had on entry into the European Community in 1973. In other words, the Government needs urgently to develop an economic policy that will actually work for the country and that is authentically post-Brexit, before they get a disastrous one forced upon them by public opinion.

This is a policy that must be built on the approach the EU worries about most: serious competition derived from low taxes and light regulation, particularly in the service sector. While this was arguably never against the rules, the EU has made it clear such an approach would be frowned upon. It needs exploring regardless.

Fourthly, and least tangibly perhaps, the Government needs to begin to execute a geopolitical pivot that shows that Britain’s role in the world is different. While people hardly follow foreign and security policy, or conversations about trade, they nonetheless pay attention to the backdrop of British political life – the foreign leaders that the Prime Minister is meeting, the countries we’re doing business with, the big things our politicians are talking about. For decades, they’ve heard little else from our political leaders other than the importance of both the US and the EU.

Now it’s time for our political leaders to show that we are playing a new role in the world. Here, the political risk analyst John Hulsman is worth listening to. As he has been arguing in his superb City AM columns, Britain needs to develop much closer relationships with India and with those countries we might call “Anglosphere” countries – Australia, Canada and New Zealand, who we already have very close intelligence ties with. Formal alliances aren’t necessary. We need to show how our new role in the world will make the world a safer and more prosperous place.  Johnson is to visit India later this month.

Since the referendum, successive Governments haven’t managed to make a positive case for Brexit at all. Their 2019 campaign to “get Brexit done” worked brilliantly but was arguably borne of a failure to excite the public at all about the potential benefits of Brexit.

Johnson, for all his love of history, is fundamentally a forward-looking optimist; if anyone is capable to getting the public excited about a post-Brexit future, it’s him. When he will get the chance to start making this case is anyone’s guess.