As Britain gears up for an election, no one is talking about brexit

The ruling Conservative Party doesn’t want to dwell on Brexit, given that about three-quarters of the country thinks it botched the departure from the EU. BENJAMIN CREMEL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
The ruling Conservative Party doesn’t want to dwell on Brexit, given that about three-quarters of the country thinks it botched the departure from the EU. BENJAMIN CREMEL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


Politicians jostling to win the coming U.K. election have embraced a very British response to an awkward problem: Whatever you do, don’t mention the B-word.

LONDON—Politicians jostling to win the coming U.K. election have embraced a very British response to an awkward problem: Whatever you do, don’t mention the B-word.

Brexit, Britain’s departure from the European Union more than four years ago, has had far-reaching impacts on the U.K. economy and the world’s largest trading bloc. It has been blamed for further hobbling an already weak economy, scaring off business investment, feeding inflation and failing to stem record levels of immigration, causing many voters to have buyer’s remorse.

The ruling Conservative Party—which ran on a slogan to “Get Brexit Done" during the last election in 2019—doesn’t want to dwell on its former flagship policy given that about three-quarters of the country thinks it botched the terms of its divorce from the EU, according to a poll by YouGov. Just 15% of Britons think the benefits of Brexit so far outweigh the costs, a separate YouGov poll found.

In a one-hour speech this week to launch his party’s manifesto ahead of the July 4 vote, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak mentioned Brexit just twice in passing.

The B-word is also rarely mentioned by the opposition Labour Party, which is on course for a big victory. Its leader Keir Starmer has said that he would like to build better ties with the EU, including on issues such as security, but has ruled out rejoining the bloc’s single market or customs union. During his speech outlining Labour’s manifesto on Thursday, he didn’t mention Brexit once.

Labour strategists worry that criticizing the policy, or pledging to reverse it, will alienate a core chunk of working-class voters in postindustrial British heartlands who voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. This group of Leave voters had traditionally backed Labour but flipped to the Conservatives in 2019 for Brexit.

Labour is winning them back thanks to a weak economy, but sees little point in reminding them that Starmer spent years energetically campaigning to stay in the EU, said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform think tank in London.

“If you talk about how you want a closer relationship with Europe, then the Leave voters will remember they are Leave voters and might go back to the Tories, so you say ‘Shhh, don’t talk about Europe,’" he said.

Starmer has denied suggestions he doesn’t want to discuss Brexit. Yet during a lengthy televised debate between Sunak and Starmer last week, the issue wasn’t raised.

“It is extraordinary that an issue that completely dominated British politics for years and whose consequences have a major impact on the economy is barely being addressed by any of the parties," said David Gauke, a former Conservative justice secretary.

Britain’s relationship with Europe has dominated the nation’s political debate for years. The Conservatives called the referendum to try to settle a growing conflict over Europe within party ranks, but it ended up dividing the country, too. The narrow win to leave the EU was the first of a series of populist shocks that reverberated across Western countries, including the U.S. election of Donald Trump later that year.

After the 2016 vote, the U.K.’s political class spent years arguing over the terms of quitting the EU and the relative merits of keeping access to its single market versus having more control over the U.K.’s own regulations and borders. In 2019, the Tories under Boris Johnson won a sweeping victory by pledging to finally secure a deal, which took effect on Jan. 31, 2020. The final deal was closer to a so-called hard Brexit—leaving the European single market for goods and services and ending the free movement of people from the bloc to the U.K.

In the subsequent years, Brexit has made Britain’s economy about 5% smaller than it otherwise would have been, according to Goldman Sachs, as investment and trade in goods fell. It also contributed to higher U.K. inflation compared with major Western economies.

Less predictably, it also created a surge in legal migration. The Conservative government allowed in a record 2.4 million migrants from around the world in the last two years, in part to ease labor shortages in areas such as healthcare—double the immigration rates in the years leading up to Brexit. Meanwhile, with government coffers hit by the effects of Covid-19 bailouts and lost economic growth, taxes rose to the highest share of national income since the 1940s.

The result is that few who voted for Brexit are happy with the outcome. Those who saw it as a bulwark against globalization are disappointed by the influx of migrants. Those who saw it as a way to shed EU regulations to forge a more competitive economy haven’t seen the fruits of that either. Trust in the British political class has collapsed. Some 45% of British people now say they “almost never" trust governments to put the nation’s interests first, a record high, according to research by the U.K.’s National Center for Social Research.

Most Britons are also tired of talking about Brexit after years arguing over a divisive issue that pitted friends and family against one another.

“It’s like touching something and getting an electric shock. You aren’t going to do it again soon," says Mike Galsworthy, chair of European Movement UK, which is lobbying for Britain to rejoin the EU.

There seems to be little appetite in either London or Brussels to reverse Brexit. To rejoin, the U.K. would have to show the EU that there was political unity on the decision and that it wouldn’t opt to leave again in a matter of years. And while few think Brexit has worked out well, roughly a third of voters would still vote to leave, surveys show. In rejoining, the U.K. would also likely have to adopt the euro as its currency, something it opted out of previously.

Among those who no longer talk much about Brexit are the Liberal Democrats, a midsize political party that in 2019 campaigned on junking Brexit if they came to power. Now they talk more about water quality issues, though say they want a better trade deal with the EU. “We believe in the long term we need to be back at the heart of Europe," said Ed Davey, the party’s leader, when pressed on the issue.

Today the only politicians that openly trumpet Brexit belong to the upstart Reform UK party, which is running on an anti-migration platform and says Brexit is an “opportunity of a lifetime" that has been betrayed. Its leader Nigel Farage, who helped forge Brexit, says the country needs to crack down on migration. The party is polling around 12% and is draining away right-wing voters from the Conservatives. In Scotland—which overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU—the Scottish National Party has also spoken openly about Brexit, though being open about its pitfalls.

In England, plowing a lonely furrow in the other direction is the tiny Rejoin EU party, which is fielding 26 candidates, mainly across London to push for the U.K. to re-enter the trade bloc. Their leader, Brendan Donnelly, spends his days wearing a rosette in the blue and yellow colors of the EU flag, knocking on doors trying to get people excited about Europe. “Two or three years ago we would get a lot of hostile reception, now less so," he says.

The effects of Brexit continue to hum along in the background of British life. When British paratroopers dropped into Normandy earlier this month to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings they were welcomed by cheering crowds—and French customs officials asking for their passports.

Write to Max Colchester at and David Luhnow at

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