Where is the B word in this election?

Where is the B word in this election?

Until this week, there has been a B-shaped hole in election campaigns, manifestos and media coverage. What does that mean for the future government?

After more than a month of increasingly frenetic political campaigning, one word has been largely missing in the run-up to next Thursday’s general election at the hustings and in the media: the B word.

Surveys show that more than 60% of the electorate now wish there had been a Remain win in 2016 and that more than 70% believe the UK has been economically damaged by leaving the European Union. A narrow majority of 51% think the UK should rejoin, with 36% against the idea.

Some economists believe leaving the EU may have cost Britain as much as £100bn in lost production — enough for a lot more nurses and even a tax cut or two.

But in the press and on the campaign trail, Brexit — and its effects on many of the other policies the parties are trying to sell the electorate — has barely been mentioned. Until a convenient anniversary popped up — the eighth anniversary of the referendum vote that began the tortuous withdrawal from the EU.

On Sunday — anniversary day — Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times, as he has done before, performed that most useful of all journalistic tasks: noticing and emphasising what is not happening as opposed to the easy bit, which is covering the latest news.

The political elephant in the room

As Shipman asked: “When will we break the Brexit omertà?”

The last election was won on Boris Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done”. This time, as Shipman argued, it is the elephant in the room — or the awkward uncle who turns up at Christmas and everyone tries to ignore: “Almost no-one, not the Tories, not Labour, nor even Nigel Farage’s Reform party, is really talking about this historic, political, cultural, geopolitical decision, despite the fact that its consequences continue to affect our economic fortunes and many of its kinks are a long way from being ironed out.”

He could also have added that the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European of the parties, is also keeping mightily quiet about the subject for fear of putting off historic Conservative voters who might otherwise consider backing the Lib Dems this time.

Shipman is right. In general, the media has shied away from any adequate assessment of how bad Brexit has been for the UK, not just now but continuing endlessly into the future, and not just during the election campaign but over the past five years.

This deep omertà has obviously been most marked in the Brexit-supporting papers — the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph — which shamelessly fed their readers information that was not to their advantage during the referendum campaign.

When those papers have occasionally admitted that Brexit has been an economic disaster, it has usually been coupled with the “explanation” that it has never been done properly and the UK has not taken the “opportunities” Brexit offered.

All change

This week, Brexit has burst its way into the campaign — not as something to be rationally discussed at last, but to be used as a last, desperate stick to beat the Labour party and its Remainer leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour policy on Europe is wishy-washy at best and totally inadequate at worst. It amounts to little more than a desire to have a closer working and trading relationship with the EU, but without any specifics. That is quite enough to go on for the right-wing tabloids.

“Rishi: Starmer will unpick Brexit and rejoin EU by the back door,” read the Daily Express take on the issue this week. Kemi Badenoch, former minister for women and equalities, was given a nice slot in the Daily Mail to warn that Starmer would “unpick Brexit” if he was handed “a landslide majority”.

In an increasingly desperate approach, as Labour’s lead in the polls stays stubbornly high, these papers are concocting a new toxic brew — stirring in threats to Brexit, the dangers of a Labour landslide and how Farage would undermine all he has tried to achieve by damaging the Conservatives with his Reform vote.

“Sir Keir was an ardent Remainer who fought to overturn the referendum result. There are already reports Labour wants to realign with Brussels — dragging us back into its orbit. How long before the customs union and free movement are back on the table,” said the Mail, ignoring the fact that Starmer has unambiguously ruled out either happening.

While The Sun is showing signs of a balanced approach to the two main parties and examining their manifestoes critically, mention the magic word “Brexit” and there is a danger that it will start foaming at the mouth again.

Sunak has reminded voters of Starmer’s “relentless” opposition to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. “This alone proves Brexit is not safe in his hands,” The Sun reported Sunak as saying, although the paper also noted that Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator with the UK on Brexit, has warned that a better trade deal would only be possible with free movement and rejoining the customs union.

New government, new policy?

The truth is there is a certain reality in some of the fears of the Brexit-supporting papers.

Across a five-year stretch of what the Tory tabloids have internally accepted will be a new Labour government, pressure could easily grow for, at the very least, a closer relationship with the EU. How high would the percentage of those wanting to rejoin the EU have to get before any government would have to respond?

Meanwhile, it’s time for a bet. On which day will The Sun, which traditionally has always supported winners, finally crack and begrudgingly accept that Labour is going to win?

The signs that the paper of Rupert Murdoch is still uncomfortably sitting on the fence is some of the finest political spectator sport at the moment.

Tuesday’s paper was a perfect example. Taken from The Sun’s Never Mind The Ballots podcast, there was a double-page spread for Sunak; but turn over and there’s most of a double-page spread for Starmer.

What are the latest odds on The Sun backing Labour and when? It’s 10-1 on there being at least an acknowledgment on election morning that Starmer is going to be the next prime minister and that The Sun will hold him to account for all the promises he has made.

It looks as if it has missed out already in backing a winner in a decent way.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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