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How Brexiters live their truth (badly)

Imagine you were a senior Brexiter in 2016, a politician or a journalistic cheerleader. You’ll always remember that moment the night of the vote, when you realised you had achieved something historic. That’s rare for a politician and almost unheard of for a journalist. Because Brexit was decided by popular opinion, journalists, for once, mattered. The vote was your revenge on your conventional, unimaginative peers, some of them, frustratingly, with better careers, who couldn’t see Brexit’s potential.

For years afterwards, you told yourself comforting stories to preserve the illusion that Brexit would work out. Any setbacks would be righted once there was a real Brexiter in charge, or when a prime minister dared unleash all that potential by slashing taxes. Everyone you knew agreed with you.

But now you sometimes admit to yourself: we were wrong. Brexit failed. If you’re a Conservative, you’ll probably be tossed out of power next year. If you’re in your fifties, like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg or Steve Baker, you’re unlikely ever to return. The generation that will replace you is overwhelmingly Remainer. One day, the first line in your obituary will be Brexit. How will the guilty men and women deal with that?

Tellingly, Brexiters now hate to talk about Brexit. Whenever we Remoaners mention it, the standard Leaver retort is, “Get over it”, as if it were a defeat in a long-ago football match rather than an all-encompassing policy that will harm Britain for decades.

I’m concerned here with Brexiters rather than with Brexit, but I should briefly lay out the evidence for its failure. The British economy, suffering the worst fall in living standards on record, will be the worst-performing of the G20 economies except Russia this year and next, forecasts the OECD. Britain’s goods exports are the worst in the G7. Foreign investment has fallen since 2016. Despite the Brexiter promise of more money for the NHS, more than one in 10 Britons is now waiting for hospital treatment, the most since records began. Life expectancy for poorer people has fallen.

And Brexiters no longer even promise sunny uplands to come. Having once touted free-trade deals with the US and China, they are now busy achieving free trade within the UK. Liz Truss tested to destruction the hypothesis that tax cuts would unleash Brexit’s potential.

Nothing unexpected came along to upset the Brexiters’ plan. There wasn’t a plan, and there couldn’t have been. Brexit was a wrong turn that will continue to distract British governments from serious issues such as climate or artificial intelligence.

Some Brexiters have responded by changing their story. Now they say Brexit was never about grubby economics, only about sovereignty, as if voters in 2016 were told, “You’ll be poorer, mind.” It’s also unclear where this whizzo new sovereignty resides. If the UK actually did set its own standards for products and labour, it couldn’t sell the resulting goods to neighbouring countries. It hasn’t yet dared check the vast majority of imports from Europe for fear of even longer border queues and nobody ever seeing a fresh tomato again. As for acting alone in the world, Britain needs France just to stop small boats.

In short, “Brexit will benefit Britain” has joined the list of those rare political propositions that were tested and proven false: “Climate change is fake.” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” “Gay marriage will destroy society.” (Some Brexiters, of course, bought the full set of wrong causes.)

Now Brexit is passing from active controversy to past disaster, like Britain’s participation in the Iraq war. But, unlike the Brexiters, the Labour politicians who took Britain into Iraq have achievements to set against their blunder. They bequeathed a country that was richer, longer-lived, with a minimum wage and a properly funded NHS. Anyway, Britain’s choice on Iraq wasn’t hugely consequential. The US would have fought the war and broken the Middle East without Britain.

As the Tory party and its newspapers continue their remorseless slide, Brexiters will fade from the stage into noises off. They may become like communists after 1989: not quite defending their old ideology, but delivering often valid critiques of the EU, like ex-communists dissecting capitalism.

Oddly, the current prime minister may avoid that fate. Like millions of armchair Leavers, Rishi Sunak can use the defence of irrelevance: he was too junior in 2016 to have affected the outcome. He can spend the rest of his term trying to leave behind a slightly better country, and lose with a legacy, like John Major and Ken Clarke in 1997.

Older Brexiters have learnt that there’s a worse political fate than losing. It’s winning while being wrong.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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