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Brexit battles resurface as labour shortage looms large

22 November 2022

By Beth Tarling

As England and Wales began their World Cup campaigns in Qatar, another nation-gripping battle appeared to resurface back on home soil: Brexit.

If you think you’ve heard the last of it, it might be time to think again. An article in The Sunday Times brought yet another shockwave through the Conservative Party at the weekend, after it claimed that some in government are looking to pursue a new Swiss-style deal with the EU to improve the economic picture. This would potentially give the UK selected single market access and remove checks on many goods, whilst putting us back in the Schengen common travel area and necessitating a financial contribution to the bloc.

Unsurprisingly, there was a backlash amongst some Tory MPs, with former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox commenting that "reopening the debate on Brexit is the very last thing that we need at the present time" and describing it as a "waste of everybody's energy.” Nigel Farage even threatened a political comeback if the rumours were true.

Come Monday, Rishi Sunak was forced to launch a Harry Maguire-esque defence on the matter. He spoke at the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual conference that morning, saying he was "unequivocal" that he would not return to any alignment with EU laws: "I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit, and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities for the country," he said.

The question remains, then, about how Rishi proposes to fix the country’s labour shortage. Despite the UK falling into recession, job vacancies are high at over 1.2 million, and the current Brexit deal inevitably creates barriers for foreign workers to easily work in the UK. However, the Prime Minister made clear that his current focus is on tackling illegal migration.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer told the conference that the days of "cheap labour" must end, and British workers trained up, in order to wean the UK off its "immigration dependency” – a phrase which has grabbed headlines and resulted in another public comment from Nigel Farage, who said that Labour are now “to the right of the Conservatives on immigration.” But the Labour leader caveated his statement by insisting that he would be "pragmatic" in addressing issues around labour shortages, such as by improving on the points-based immigration system introduced after Brexit.

The comments latterly made by Sir Keir were perhaps a response to that of the CBI director-general, Tony Danker, who called for “fixed term visas to plug the gaps until British workers are ready to do the jobs” and said he hoped to see some “new ideas” from the Prime Minister about how the economy can start to grow again.

Unfortunately for Mr Sunak, labour shortages aren’t the only issue causing the Brexit debate to creep back in. There continues to be issues with the Northern Ireland protocol, and a fall in living standards in the context of the broader economic picture will inevitably lead some to question whether Brexit itself is the reason that we’re worse off than before. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll has shown that the British public now think the UK was wrong to leave the EU by 56% to 32%. The same poll revealed that one in five who voted for Brexit now believe their decision was wrong.

The debate inevitably causes yet another challenge for the Conservatives, and the possibility of a winning goal from Labour come the General Election – particularly if Rishi Sunak fails to come up with new solutions that have the backing of his MPs. The response to article in The Sunday Times shows just how difficult that could be.