Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are stuck in a conspiracy of silence on Brexit at this general election

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The Liberal Democrats have proposed incremental steps to rejoin the European Single Market.

In the first leaders debate of this election, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer spent a lot of time discussing the cost of living crisis. They talked about the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and Liz Truss’ mini-budget, but for some reason the B word was missing.

In the 2019 election, Brexit was the biggest issue of the campaign. Boris Johnson won a landslide victory with the slogan “get Brexit done”, as the public just wanted to end the bickering and infighting and get on with their lives.

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Five years on, the B word is hardly being mentioned at all - and certainly not by the two candidates to become Prime Minister. Keir Starmer, previously an ardent Remainer, is terrified of saying anything the Tories could use to attack him. And Rishi Sunak has nothing to say about Brexit, as the whole thing has been such a shambles. 

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn decried this as a “conspiracy of silence” in the seven-party debate on the BBC, adding: “Brexit has impacted the economy more than the Covid pandemic. It has put your food bills up unnecessarily, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the economy.” For this, he got a round of applause.

Ignore it at your peril, as we’re all slowly going to feel the impact of quitting Europe more and more as the year goes on. Pubs and restaurants are being forced to close over staffing shortages, while small businesses are hit by the extra red tape that comes with importing and exporting. Later in the year, holidaymakers will have to deal with monstrous queues to travel to Europe due to new passport rules.

On an economic level, the impact of Brexit is obvious. Since 2016, the EU’s economy has grown by 24% while the UK’s has only grown by 6%. Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, estimates that Brexit has lost the economy 5% of growth, while goods trade is now the lowest in the G7. That extra tax revenue would have been useful for Starmer, who has watered down almost every one of his pledges blaming the UK’s stuttering economy.

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In the Lib Dems’ manifesto, released today (10 June), they have included a common sense plan for returning to the Single Market. That’s the trading area which is separate from the political community of the EU.

The party wants to rebuild the relationship with our European partners, which would include restoring Erasmus and bringing in a Youth Mobility Scheme, to allow young people to travel and work freely. The manifesto says: “Finally, once ties of trust and friendship have been renewed, and the damage the Conservatives have caused to trade between the UK and EU has begun to be repaired, we would aim to place the UK-EU relationship on a more formal and stable footing by seeking to join the Single Market.”

Daniel Callaghan, the Liberal Democrat candidate standing against Rishi Sunak in Richmond, tells me that this has to be achieved “incrementally”. “It’s no secret that the Lib Dems were really strongly pro-Remain,” he says. 

“I thought it was a tragedy that we left and one day in my lifetime I would hope to see us back in the EU. I think we have to make that case incrementally, I don’t think it’s feasible to rejoin the day after the election.”

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Public opinion is slowly coming around to this viewpoint. Last year, a new poll found 57% of Britons support rejoining the Single Market, even if that includes freedom of movement. NationalWorld has included the demand for a public inquiry into Brexit, as part of our own election manifesto. Instead of opening up old wounds, it would allow people to understand and make up their own minds whether leaving the EU has been a success or not.

As the reality of Brexit continues to set in, Sunak and Starmer would be foolish to think they can ignore it forever.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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