The Pitfalls of Brexit Are No Longer Taboo in UK Politics

(Bloomberg) -- After years of denying the downsides of Britain’s split from the European Union, the Brexit taboo is starting to lift in the governing Conservative Party and the country’s right-wing press.

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Brexit has caused a “calamitous loss of international standing” and six years of “damage”, “policy confusion” and “ineptitude”, a columnist for the traditionally Brexit-backing Telegraph newspaper wrote this weekend. The claims of so-called “Project Fear” -- a derogatory term given to pre-Brexit warnings about economic harm and disruption -- “have turned out to be overwhelmingly correct”, the Telegraph column said.

The piece’s verdict, which grouped Brexit with the recent market turmoil that has shattered the Conservative Party’s reputation, coincides with a growing openness among Tory MPs to acknowledge Britain’s now-fragile relationship with the EU and a desire to rebuild ties. With Prime Minister Liz Truss in so much difficulty, the UK is in the mood for a reset.

Whereas the EU was previously seen as an easy external enemy to bash -- be it over access to fishing waters or as a scapegoat for high levels of immigration -- the British government has started to adopt a warmer stance. Only this month a UK minister apologized to the EU for their handling of post-Brexit negotiations over Northern Ireland and said the UK side needed to show more humility.

Talks on the vexed Northern Ireland issue have been more positive in recent weeks, with discussions re-starting for the first time in eight months and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney noting a change in tone from the British.

Truss also attended the first meeting of the European Political Community in Prague this month and described French President Emmanual Macron as a friend, having previously said the “jury’s out” on whether he was friend or foe, another sign of rapprochement.

The damage of Brexit to the UK’s labour market is also being recognized, and Truss’s government now openly countenances more visas for foreign workers to plug shortages, a policy stance previously rejected in Conservative quarters for being antithetical to the spirit of Brexit.

To be sure, the question of whether Britain ought to one day rejoin the EU is still far, far away. The opposition Labour Party steers clear of the Brexit subject, fearful of being painted as wanting to overturn the democratic decision of the 2016 referendum result, an attack Boris Johnson used effectively when winning his landslide general election victory in 2019. And though Labour currently has a record advantage over the Tories in the polls, the next general election isn’t likely to happen until at least 2024.

Meanwhile the overwhelming bulk of Conservative MPs still see the European question as settled for a generation, either considering that the benefits of sovereignty trump any economic harms or believing it’s still too early to pass verdict on Brexit’s merits.

Nevertheless, by publishing a column titled “Project Fear was right all along”, the Telegraph -- the broadsheet newspaper that argued most vociferously for Brexit -- is marking a significant shift.

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