Read: The problem of Britain taking back control
This change is subtle, but transformative. While it remains perfectly reasonable to reject this approach and seek voters’ permission to rejoin the EU, this is a new argument and harder to win. Rejoining the EU means another referendum and another negotiation. And, most importantly, it means rejoining a club that will be different from the one Britain voted to leave in 2016 (and on terms no one can be sure of). What was once the argument for stability and certainty is now the reverse.
This brings us to the third truth. By its very nature, Brexit will change Britain, creating new groups with vested interests tied to staying out of the EU. This is not because of a grand conspiracy, but because of the nature of politics—there is always a group that favors maintaining the status quo. Blair himself noted this point in his memoir, A Journey. Reflecting on the civil service, or what Donald Trump would call the deep state, Blair wrote, “The problem with them … was inertia. They tended to surrender, whether to vested interests, to the status quo or to the safest way to manage things—which all meant: to do nothing.”
Blair believed that, when in government, the political instinct pushing leaders toward indecision had to be constantly fought. He argued that avoiding decisions did not reduce political risk in the long run; it simply meant you did not get to choose the battles in which your wider war for votes was fought. Governments that reform things create dividing lines with their opponents that they want, not ones that emerge elsewhere in the vacuum of indecision.
With Brexit, if Johnson follows through with his plan to return what he has called “full legal autonomy” to Britain, he will suddenly have the power to create new dividing lines in a raft of new areas, from immigration and trade policy to fishing rights and agricultural subsidies, as well as those that were already in the government’s control, like prison sentencing, taxes, and public spending. As with all policy changes, there will be winners and losers: Domestic producers, for example, are forecast to benefit, while consumers are not; fishing communities might prosper, but at the cost, according to the EU’s negotiating mandate, of the wider British economy, which will have to pay a higher price when selling goods and services to the continent. The beneficiaries of these decisions might win big and have a vested interest in maintaining the new status quo, while the losers might barely notice at first, only paying the price over time. Such is the alchemy of politics that votes can be won by hitting large numbers of people a little bit for the great benefit of just a few.
All of this means that if Britain seeks to rejoin the EU in the future, it won’t just be a different EU it is joining, but a different Britain seeking a return. The rupture has happened and may prove too great to repair. Britain would have to not only accept the free movement of people and contributions to the EU budget, but also actively vote to resurrect these politically toxic realities of EU membership. It might also have to consider the euro and other facets of EU membership of which it had previously opted out.