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The U.K. has lost its last major anti-Brexit party.
The election of former Cabinet Minister Ed Davey as leader of the Liberal Democrats means that the three main U.K.-wide political parties (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats) all now have leaders who either warmly welcome Brexit (Tory Boris Johnson), or accept it’s happening and that we’ve got to get on with it (Labour’s Keir Starmer and now Davey).
Since the EU referendum in 2016, the Lib Dems had defined themselves by their anti-Brexit stance, with mixed success. They peaked in spring 2019 with their “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan, winning a surge of Remainer votes at the European election, as confusion reigned over Theresa May’s botched Brexit deal. In a polarized poll, the Lib Dems came second behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
That helped persuade Labour — which had been on “a journey,” as they say, with their own Brexit stance — that it had to back a second referendum or else surrender many voters to the Lib Dems at the next general election.
It didn’t work out, and the rest is history.
Now with the U.K. having legally left the EU (transition period notwithstanding), even the Lib Dems are (begrudgingly) on board with Brexit and have decided it’s time to move on. “People need to understand what a party is about. And you can’t define a party by an issue which will go, which is transitional,” Davey told the Guardian during the leadership campaign.
And what about rejoining the EU further down the track? Well, maybe, but now is not the time. “At the moment ‘Rejoin’ clearly isn’t where the British people are at,” Davey told the BBC, while acknowledging that “people’s views may change.”
In a way, it’s the end of an era. Apart from the Scottish National Party (which wants an independent Scotland to rejoin the bloc) the major British political parties have now officially given up arguing about the wisdom of Brexit. Had a Lib Dem leadership contender emerged and won arguing the party should continue pushing for Rejoin, things might have been different.
It’s an interesting moment in the history of the U.K.’s departure from the EU. The pro-European sentiment of much of the British population will not disappear overnight. But it now has no U.K.-wide political leadership. If, as many in the EU and the U.K. still hope, there is one day a movement to rejoin the bloc, it will now have to come from the ground up, with the people demanding it of their politicians.
Because now — rightly or wrongly — the politicians have decided it’s a no-hope ticket.
This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial, email [email protected].