For quite understandable reasons the UK’s relations with the European Union are a taboo subject for Britain’s political leaders both in the government and the opposition. Brexit is the biggest and most consequential event facing this country yet neither Rishi Sunak nor Sir Keir Starmer chose to discuss it in their new year speeches.

If they have their way, Starmer and Sunak will keep the question of Europe suppressed all the way to the next General Election, which is not expected until mid 2024 at the earliest. Circumstances may not indulge them. There are at least three pressing matters likely to force them out of their oblivious comfort zones: Northern Ireland, Ukraine and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.

The Conservatives are wise not to talk about the Brexit which they forced onto the national agenda because they have nothing positive to show for it, except the satisfaction of raising two fingers to the neighbours. Brexit has only delivered in keeping the Tory party just about together by marginalizing the forces of Farage in electoral terms. None of the benefits promised by the Brexiteers have materialized. The UK is the only member of the G7 with an economy still smaller than before the Covid pandemic. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects the economy to end up 4% smaller than it would have been if the UK had stayed in, a shortfall which would have gone some way to fund public services. Far from the bonanza painted on Boris Johnson’s bus, the NHS is in daily crisis. Uncontrolled immigration is up, not down. Both the NHS and small boats top Sunak’s to do list for 2023. Global Britain has yet to strike a more advantageous trade deal with a significant partner. Greg Hands boasting of possibly millions of pounds worth of pork sausage exports to South Korea over five years is hardly a banger. 

Labour’s reluctance to raise the subject is entirely a matter of political calculation. Many voters are simply fed up listening to the endless wrangling about relations with the EU which dominated the national conversation until the Covid pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Although opinion polls suggest substantial buyers’ remorse about the 52% to 48% 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, there is no certainty that the result would be reversed in a rerun – if a rerun were possible, which it isn’t. EU Member states will ensure that referendums on joining are genuinely once in a generation events. 

Labour needs a lot of those leave inclined voters if it is to turn its big opinion poll lead into real victory at the next election, and not just in the “Red Wall”. There is nothing to be gained by Sir Keir Starmer telling them that they were wrong. Concern over small boats and rising immigration mean that it is far too soon to talk about the single market and freedom of movement. So this week in his New Year Message, it was a crafty move by Starmer, the former remainer, to try a bit of political cross-dressing by co-opting the Brexiteer slogan “Take Back Control” for his own purposes. 

The EU Retained Law Bill, which has currently reached the House of Lords, is one of the biggest legislative headaches for the government. It proposes wiping from the statute all the EU laws which were hastily transposed into British Law to get Brexit done – except those which the government wishes to adapt. Theoretically more than 4,000 laws covering a vast array of subjects from environmental protection to workers’ rights will have to be reviewed before the axe falls, an impossible task according to the government’s own internal advisors. Organisations from both sides of business – the Institute of Directors and the Trade Union Congress have appealed to the government to rethink. But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the influential MP and Brexit fundamentalist, has demanded that the government seize “the benefits of Brexit without delay”.

There is a curious logic in Rees-Mogg arguing that the Conservatives should get on with removing workers’ rights and the other laws now because otherwise the potential threat that they would do it would hand a weapon to Labour at election time. Still, the Prime Minister appears to agree with him. It is often forgotten that Sunak is the most convinced Brexit-believing Prime Minister the UK has ever had. At the time of the referendum, May and Truss were remainers, and Johnson wrote columns for both sides of the argument, but Sunak never wavered. Challenged by a reporter at his New Year event, the Prime Minister ignored the suggestion that he should at least delay cancelling the laws, stressing instead that it was vital to secure the supposed “benefits of Brexit”. The implication of this is that he favours the low regulation “Singapore on Thames”, dreamt of by his erstwhile colleagues in the city, and must surely be a target which Starmer cannot ignore.

Before then, there are pressing deadlines urging an accommodation with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol – the deal celebrated by Johnson but subsequently castigated by him and the Democratic Unionists. By 19th January, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Christopher Heaton-Harris, is obliged to call another election for the paralysed Stormont Parliament. The vote would be expected on 13th April, just days before the international celebrations of the Good Friday Agreement on 28th April. It would not be a good look for the British government to be forced to stage a vote advertising sectarian divisions and the failure of power-sharing in the province. The German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock echoed President Biden on a recent visit to London, that doubts over the Belfast agreement are the main obstacle to better bilateral relations with the UK.

Heaton-Harris is expected to opt for further delay, in the hope of a breakthrough with the EU. Newly restored as Prime Minister in Ireland’s coalition government, Leo Varadkar has admitted “mistakes were made” and promised “flexibility” and “compromise” on the question of checks on goods passing between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. But while lighter touch implementation is proposed, there is no sign that the EU is willing to abandon or substantially rewrite the protocol as the DUP is demanding. Starmer will be under pressure to stake out a position stronger than urging constructive talks. Meanwhile no date has been set for a Sunak-Varadkar meeting, each their nation’s first leaders of Indian heritage. 

Successive Prime Ministers have emphasised Britain’s leadership role responding to Russia’s unprovoked assault against Ukraine. In practice the United States is by far the biggest donor of financial and military support to Kiev while, in financial terms, the UK and France have contributed roughly the same. Helping Ukraine is only going to get more expensive, as countries at last start to supply tanks and air defences. Meanwhile ministers repeatedly insist that the war, and consequent high energy prices, are the root cause of Britain’s cost of living crisis. Nato has been strengthened by the conflict and the UK has joined in discussions on European defence co-ordinated by President Macron. Even without a peace process, relations with allies, especially those in Europe, will require more than rhetoric this year from the UK’s rival politicians. 

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