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Opinion Are we finally seeing the end of 'Brexit mania' in Britain?

Peter Flanagan asks if the tide is now turning against the great Brexit experiment across the water.

WHEN HYSTERIA SETS in, it can seem unstoppable before fizzling out. In 1518 the city of Strasbourg experienced what was known as the “the dancing plague” when hundreds of citizens started dancing manically against their will for days on end.

The delirium lasted for months before suddenly stopping – no one understood why it ended, much less why it started in the first place.

There is some hope that Britain is edging, tentatively, towards the end of what might called “Brexit mania”. Historians will argue about what triggered the mass delusion which poisoned British politics in the summer of 2016, but the causes of its demise will be fairly unambiguous. 56% of Britons in a recent poll said they think it was a mistake.

With the country in the grips of a recession, the public’s tolerance for fairytales about a Great British revival appears to have reached its limit.

A loss of face

The data is damning – the combative stance that Britain has adopted with the European Union has tied lead weights to the feet of British business. The government’s attempt to boost growth while ghosting its largest trading partner is an absurdity that it can’t credibly hawk to the public any longer.

Moderate Tories know this, which is why solutions like a Swiss-style deal with Brussels are being whispered about again in the corridors of power.

Not dissimilar to the Chequers deal that Theresa May failed to flog to parliament back in 2018, the kind of arrangement enjoyed by Switzerland would have many practical advantages for the UK. It would solve the Northern Ireland border issue for one, and open the economy up for frictionless commerce with the rest of the continent.

But make no mistake; such a compromise would also be a humiliation for Britain. It would mean signing back up to the terms and conditions it so forcefully rejected, without any of the influence wielded by a member state. It would be like breaking up with your partner, only to crawl back after realising how much rent costs for a single person.

Regrets

The bitter irony is that Britain once had the most bespoke arrangement of any EU country, with all the benefits of membership while remaining outside of the Euro and the Schengen Area. It was a plum deal, one which will never be offered to anyone again. To accept a deal that leaves the nation no better off than where it was pre-referendum would be to admit that the whole project has been a misadventure. It’s a grisly message that no prime minister has been willing to be honest about.

Compared to the jolly mendacity of Boris Johnson and the searing incompetence of Lizz Truss, Rishi Sunak has felt like a soothing balm. Nevertheless, he knows any display of pragmatism or humility on Brexit would cause a revolt on his party back benches.

With his economy in freefall and his party suspicious of his commitment to the cause, he’s too weak to bring either the EU or his own MPs to heel. With only bad options on the table, it’s likely he’ll simply do nothing, grit his teeth and hope for the best in the next general election.

What’s more troubling than Tory stubbornness is the lack of urgency from the opposition benches. Terrified of further alienating working-class voters who backed leaving the EU, Keir Starmer’s strategy appears to be as vague on the European question as possible. Like Sunak, he’s anxious to convince the electorate that he’s nothing like his colourful predecessor. Where Jeremy Corbyn was a proper Marxist, one gets the sense looking at Starmer that his greatest socialist ambition would be to make men’s hair gel available on the NHS. 

But as the public move from the denial stage towards acceptance, politicians will eventually have to follow. Even die-hard fans are getting sick of hearing about it. If Brexit was a TV show, it would have been cancelled by now.

All the best characters have been killed off. Johnson was the programme’s heart and soul, styling himself as Churchill with a Lads Mag twist. He joshed and japed his way through debates and sold Brexit as a great national mischief.

Take away the clowning and sleaze however, the project is being exposed for what it is – a rather boring negotiation of bilateral trade agreements, the fudging of which has made people poorer. When the finale finally airs, everyone will wonder how they let themselves get so carried away.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter @peterflanagan and Instagram @peterflanagancomedy. 

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