As his statue sits locked inside its steel sarcophagus in Parliament Square, I’m reminded of the words Winston Churchill is alleged to have said to the House of Commons in the early days of World War 2. ‘The darkest hour comes just before the dawn.’
Ravaged by Covid-19, distanced from family and friends, facing the worst economic downturn in history, with rioting on the streets, Britain is in a mess.
But from perhaps the strangest and once the most controversial of places, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A flicker in the dark to give us confidence and belief in our future.
On Friday, the government confirmed once and for all that the Brexit Transition Period would not be extended beyond the end of this year.
Covid-19 has made our swift exit from the European Union all the more critical.
There are 3 reasons to be optimistic.
After 4 years of bitter division, it promises to finally repair the rift in British democracy and fulfil the democratic mandate of 5 consecutive national elections that have voted clearly and consistently to leave the European Union. It is certainly a decision that will hearten voters in the Red Wall constituencies, the key to Boris’s thumping Parliamentary majority. In a Savanta ComRes poll last week for the cross-party thinktank, the Centre for Brexit Policy (CBP), people living in the Red Wall seats of the Midlands and the North that fell to the Conservatives in the 2019 election were strongly opposed to any extension of the deadline for Britain to complete its exit from the European Union. By 51 per cent to 42 per cent, they believed that the Covid-19 crisis should not be used as a pretext for delaying Brexit.
Second, Covid-19 has made our swift exit from the European Union all the more critical. You won’t find the policies that best help Britain escape a virus-induced global depression in the bureaucratic protectionism of Brussels. We need the freedom of manoeuvre that is essential for recovery and levelling up our economy, enables successful trading in growing non-EU markets, provides certainty to business and improves the prospects of reaching a free trade deal with the EU. Red Wall voters agree and are positive about life outside the European Union. If there had been an extension, they expected our cost of living, tax rates, price of food and average wages to all worsen.
Third, those demanding an extension to the Transition Period were right in one way. Any government would be stretched to simultaneously deal with a health pandemic, financial crash and identity riots, as well as the day-to-day. But they were wrong in their solution. The answer is not to put things on hold by extending the Transition Period, but to remove the embolism and ‘Get Brexit Done’. In Red Wall constituencies, the CBP poll suggests that the insistence on no delay is even stronger among “Switchers”, who voted Labour in 2017 but switched to the Conservatives in 2019. By 56 per cent to 43 per cent, this pivotal electoral group want Brexit on time or even sooner, a figure that leaps to a 73 per cent to 23 per cent majority among “Consistents”, people who voted Conservative in Red Wall seats in 2017 and 2019.
I’m optimistic that Churchill’s statue will soon be freed to again remind us of our imperfections, eccentricities and the value of resilience in adversity. I believe that history teaches us every life matters; WB Yeats was right when he said, ‘I think we should accept the whole past, not pick and choose,’ and those two thoughts can peacefully co-exist. And I am sure that we are blessed in the UK with our world outlook and global talent pool, we just need to regain our mojo.
It still profoundly matters what kind of deal we finally agree with the European Union, but the government’s resolve to not extend the Transition Period will help bring the long night to an end. Let’s keep buggering on.
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