Politics

Why is nobody talking about Brexit in the general election?

2019's election was won on a promise to "Get Brexit Done". This time around, Brexit is the word which can't be spoken

Keir Starmer hands out ice cream

Brexit seems to be the elephant in the room during the general election campaign. Image: Keir Starmer/Flickr

One thing has been noticeably in the background of the UK’s general election campaign so far: Brexit. Voters have described the lack of discussion as an “omerta”, while Piers Morgan says it is the “great unmentionable”. 

After the last election was fought and won on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, the word is mentioned 12 times in the 80-page Conservative manifesto. In the 136-page Labour manifesto, it is mentioned just once.

Leading experts asked by the Big Issue agreed that neither party has an incentive to open what are seen as old wounds – but that the avoidance feels like a major elephant in the room.

“It remains extraordinary that no party wants to talk about what is arguably the single biggest policy change of the last half-century, which dominated the last election and rewired the governing party – especially when neither camp seems happy with the outcome,” says Robert Saunders, a reader in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London.

Labour and the Conservatives are afraid of opening Brexit wounds

There are many factors at play, says Saunders: Labour is afraid of antagonising older, Leave voters, while the Conservatives don’t want to raise the question of their handling. At the same time, says Saunders, rejoining isn’t currently on the table – making substantial policy on the issue unlikely.

There is also an instinctive reluctance among the political class, Saunders adds: “Many MPs remain deeply traumatised by the Brexit debate, which for many of them was the most miserable, frightening and polarising experience of their lives. 

“MPs who spent years scrolling through death-threats on their time-lines and facing accusations of treason or xenophobia from their constituents are less eager than some keyboard warriors to step back onto that battlefield.

Polling shows just 13% of voters think Brexit is the most important issue facing the country.

The smaller parties are finding it easier to address the ‘elephant in the room’

Smaller parties, on the other hand, are less shy. The Liberal Democrats have promised a re-entry to the single market, while arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage is at the head of Reform UK’s campaign.

David Moon, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath, says it has become one of a “herd of elephants” in the election, along with climate change and Gaza.

“Both parties refuse to speak of the elephant, terrified of incurring the wrath of Brexit voters who cluster in key seats. It means that for Labour and the Conservatives, there is a sense of unreality about the visions they’re promoting.”

But for smaller parties in a two-party system, the incentives are different, Moon adds.

“Their goals are not to secure a majority of seats, but rather thinking longer-term to give a home to disillusioned voters from the large party’s flanks – and this means pointing at the elephants and shouting about them, to attract voters who care deeply about them, be it climate breakdown, the death and starvation in Gaza, or our future relations with the EU.

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Brexit is a big fixture in Northern Ireland’s election campaign

Despite Brexit’s absence from nationwide campaigns, it is still prominent in campaigning in Northern Ireland, where divisions over customs and border arrangements are a live political issue. 

Brexit introduced the prospect of checks on goods at the Irish border – raising questions over the Good Friday Agreement and a return of instability.

Disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol led the Democratic Unionist Party, which won eight Westminster seats in 2019, to boycott the devolved power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.

“In Northern Ireland, Brexit remains prominent in party political campaigning,” says David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. 

“Parties are not shy in coming forward in reminding voters of their position on Brexit and the Protocol, who is to blame for the ‘Irish Sea border’, and what should be done next to resolve the issue.”

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