1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’. I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so.The late Queen, 24 November 1992.
Almost exactly 30 years on, the Queen’s words, with her gift for understatement, once again ring true. Many of us will feel some relief to have put the year 2022 behind us, although perhaps more with the hope than the expectation that 2023 will bring better things. At the beginning of the year, I wonder how many people foresaw that it would see the start of a major war in Europe, or that it would be the year of the three prime ministers, or that it would be the year in which the country would lose its much loved queen and once again have a king?
Pub quiz time?
At the risk of sounding unserious, I would speculate that this year will generate more pub quiz questions for generations of the future than most. Examples: When for the first time were there three ex prime ministers sitting simultaneously on the back benches? On what day were the two top jobs occupied by women called Elizabeth? (It was on 7th September). What year saw the end of the longest tenure by a monarch and the shortest by a Prime Minister? And so on.
Brexit – the forgotten dream
All these things would have been very difficult to predict. Not so, however, this year’s many Brexit-related stories. The ONS prediction of 4% shrinkage is proving optimistic, the latest figures are of the order of 5.5% compared to a hypothetical UK that had not left the EU. This was the year in which Paris overtook London as the main European centre for share dealing. It is also the year in which the UK definitively lost its much-vaunted place as the world’s fifth largest economy – it is now 6th behind India. There’s been a massive increase in fuel costs, something not mirrored in most European countries. Skills shortages are worsening as we know to our cost, affecting access to the NHS and to domiciliary care – and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Food shortages are once again a thing, due to lack of agricultural and abattoir workers, and so on. ‘Eat by …’ dates have suddenly become closer. In the first summer in which large-scale European travel was again an option, UK travellers were faced with long queues and roaming charges. All this was predicted, but unfortunately saying “I told you so” is unhelpful.
Given the circumstances, it should not surprise us that public opinion has swung massively. It has been the case since 2018 that for purely demographic reasons, if the referendum were to be rerun and nobody had changed their minds, there would be a majority in favour of remaining. Opinion polls now consistently show a majority believing that Brexit was a mistake (currently about 56% versus 32%) and, given the evidence, there is no prospect of that transformation in opinion ever being reversed. The leadership of both main parties remains in complete denial about these obvious facts, but that cannot go on forever.
There are many who say that it is somehow undemocratic to talk about rejoining, and of course doing so would be a major project requiring significant changes of heart on both sides of the channel. However it certainly seems like a less crazy idea now than a year ago. There is now a public majority in favour of rejoining, although it may take a bit longer to achieve public acceptance of the terms under which joining might be possible. It is striking that this year more and more Brexiteer energy seems to be consumed on tactics to make rejoining more difficult. Hence, for example, all the talk about ‘divergence’ for its own sake; about bringing back imperial measures; about the UKCA mark replacing the CE mark; about joining the Trans Pacific Partnership, in itself to all appearances a reckless and crazy act; and the alienation of our EU allies over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the accession of Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom to what was then the EEC. This can only be a bittersweet thought to those in this country, and they are now the majority, who regard Brexit as a huge mistake.
The year of the three PMs
‘I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it is in the national interest but because it is in their own personal interest to achieve ministerial position.’Tory MP Sir Charles Walker, on the night before Truss resigned.
As to 2022 being the year of the three prime ministers, there may indeed be some who rejoice in that fact. I would find it difficult to see the world through their eyes. Of course, at one level, the good news of the year is the end of Boris Johnson’s three year tenure of office, a tenure for which the country has paid a heavy price and which will cause avoidable suffering for generations to come. We can only hope we have seen the back of him, notwithstanding his heavy hints (‘hasta la vista baby’, Cincinnatus et cetera) that he has fantasies of making a comeback. With any luck the Privileges Committee will put an end to that and perhaps even fire the starting gun for a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. We can only hope.
As to Liz Of The 49 Days, she who was famously outlived by a lettuce, what can one say? I’m told it is always good to start with the positives. Through her performative incompetence and her destructive and unfeeling actions in office – cheered on by those behind her – she unmasked the true nature of the party which elected her. It is very difficult to see her party recovering from the massive electoral advantage which she handed the opposition, at least before the next election. Even more lastingly, she and Kwarteng have shown up the Tufton Street model of economics as the selfish fantasy it is, and it will take decades to recover. No doubt both of them are no longer on the Christmas card list of the so-called Institute for Economic Affairs. However, on the debit side, she will never be forgiven either by the many people who are now paying higher taxes to fund the £30 billion hole she created in the national coffers. Nor will she be be forgiven by householders who will now, for years to come, be paying higher mortgage interest rates or by those whose house purchases fell through or who lost their homes as a result of her insane ‘mini-budget’ adventure.
There is one further aspect of the Truss legacy which may well prove hard to ignore. When she came to office she pulled Jacob Rees Mogg from his role as Minister for ‘Brexit opportunities’ (a vacancy which still to this day remains unfilled, I wonder why?), and put him in charge of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). While there he set in motion the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, which is as we speak working its way through Parliament, and on course to destabilise the country’s entire legal framework. The Prime Minister well knows this, but is afraid of upsetting the extremists in his own party by distancing himself from something so dear to their hearts.
Will the year’s third Prime Minister, Sunak, survive until the next election? Sadly, I have to say that I hope so, firstly because the election cannot come soon enough, and secondly because there are no likely successors in the Tory party who can bring us anything even approaching enlightened leadership. Sunak started on a positive note, showing that he could win the confidence of the markets, portraying himself as the adult in the room and talking about ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’. That, however, only lasted about three hours and ended when he announced his new cabinet and turned himself into a figure of ridicule. We are still waiting for him to do something to salvage his reputation. His New Year message of ‘Pride, Reassurance and Fairness’ will not, I am afraid, cut it.
2022 has seen many laws passed which are completely at odds with the values of a liberal society. Think only of the Elections Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Judicial Review and Courts Act , the Immigration Act, the Nationality and Borders Act, to name just a few. We face the possibility of even worse to come in the next year, With that Retained EU Law Bill, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Public Order Bill and possibly even withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. We need a Prime Minister who is capable of saying ‘enough is enough’ And we need, more than ever, an effective opposition which will call out these travesties.
Better things for 2023
In short, in the words of the Queen, we cannot look back on 2022 with undiluted pleasure. But we cannot forget the darkest hour is the hour before dawn. Let’s just look forward to better things in the year to come. I would like to wish you all the best for 2023.
The author is Chair of Oxford for Europe, www.oxfordforeurope.org. This article is an updated version of one which has appeared on the OfE website. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily representative of Oxford for Europe
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