The (non-)issue of Brexit in the 2024 UK election campaign

Compared with the 2019 UK election, Brexit is almost invisible in the 2024 campaign. Monika Brusenbauch Meislová explains why Brexit has become the elephant in the room, and argues that the main political parties' deafening silence on the issue is damaging the UK’s interests

‘Get Brexit Done’

In the 2019 UK election, Brexit was the omnipresent force that orchestrated the rhythm of the campaign. Dubbed the 'Brexit election', UK-EU relations took centre stage, dominating headlines, manifestos, and debates. Then-prime minister Boris Johnson led the Conservative charge with the rallying cry to 'Get Brexit Done'. His slogan propelled the Conservatives to a landslide victory.

Fast forward five years, and the contrast could not be starker. The 2024 UK election campaign seems to be suffering from collective amnesia regarding UK-EU relations. The fervent debates over Brexit that once filled the airwaves have receded into distant memory.

What the parties say about Brexit

In their 27,000-word manifesto, the Conservatives mention Brexit only 12 times and the EU 16 times. And this already extremely limited content is sparse on specifics. The party nods briefly to 'Brexit freedoms', 'benefits', and 'opportunities', but offers scant detail on future UK-EU engagement, aside from a few pledges along the lines of taking 'a tough approach on ensuring that the EU are meeting their commitments under the TCA' [Trade and Cooperation Agreement].

The Labour Party is even more minimalistic. In its 24,000-word manifesto, Brexit makes a fleeting appearance only once, and the EU is mentioned a mere five times. The party’s position is deeply vague: Britain 'will stay outside of the EU' but the party will 'make Brexit work' by 'seeking a new security agreement with the EU' and 'resetting the relationship'. How Labour aims to achieve this remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

In the 2024 UK election campaign, media debates, interviews and questioning have all failed to interrogate Brexit in anything but superficial depth

The Liberal Democrats are, historically, the most pro-EU party in the UK. Yet in their 22,000-word manifesto, they mention the EU 17 times and Brexit only twice. The LibDems aim to 'place the UK-EU relationship on a more formal and stable footing by seeking to join the Single Market'. This ambition, however, is heavily qualified: it will happen only 'once ties of trust and friendship have been renewed, and the damage the Conservatives have caused to trade between the UK and EU has begun to be repaired', rendering it a distant, almost ethereal pledge.

How has Brexit all but vanished from the campaign trail? Media debates, interviews and questioning have all failed to interrogate the issue in anything but superficial depth. The reason for Brexit's disappearance from the political agenda, I argue, lies in a combination of general factors common to all parties, and specific reasons unique to each.

Brexit complexities, Brexit fatigue

Politicians across the spectrum have evidently decided that rehashing the contentious issue of Brexit is a losing strategy. They have judged the UK's relationship with the EU too complex, arcane and distant to capture public attention. All parties are therefore focusing on more tangible concerns such as the cost-of-living crisis and healthcare.

Politicians across the spectrum have evidently decided that rehashing the contentious issue of Brexit is a losing strategy

‘Brexit fatigue’ also plays a significant role. After years of intense debates, many voters feel exhausted by the topic. Revisiting the Brexit debate feels like reopening old wounds without any prospect of healing them. Politicians have picked up on this sentiment, recognising that harping on the issue risks alienating an already tired electorate.

Selective silence

For the Conservatives, being, as it were, the very architects of Brexit, there is an added layer of complexity. The Tories have struggled to showcase tangible benefits of leaving the EU. Now, they face a public increasingly sceptical about the wisdom of having done so.

Labour, on the other hand, is basking in a significant lead in the polls, apparently operating under an 'If it ain’t broke, why fix it?' logic. The party needs to hold on to pro-Brexit ‘leave’ voters, so cannot afford to be branded anti-Brexit. This renders former Remainer Keir Starmer particularly vulnerable to attack.

The Liberal Democrats, scarred by the poor results of their 2019 campaign to reverse Brexit, have adopted a more cautious stance this time round.

Why Brexit isn't really 'done'

Ignoring (or glossing over) this elephant in the room is not in the UK’s interests. While Brexit may be 'done' in the legal sense, its repercussions are far from settled and will continue to influence the UK for years to come. The EU, like it or not, remains the UK’s largest trading partner and closest geopolitical neighbour. Ignoring this relationship risks neglecting critical economic and political realities that will shape the UK’s future: from trade policies to international alliances and domestic economic stability.

While Brexit may be 'done' in the legal sense, its repercussions will continue to influence the UK for years to come

Internationally, the silence sends a troubling message to the UK’s European partners, suggesting a lack of engagement and foresight.

Shortsighted tactics

Suppressing crucial political issues is usually a sign of an unhealthy relationship. Unresolved problems have a way of resurfacing in unexpected ways, often with greater intensity.

As the UK continues to navigate its post-Brexit landscape, the need for clear and inclusive discussion on its relationship with the EU remains essential. Sweeping dirt under an already bulging carpet just defers the day when the mess will inevitably spill out.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Monika Brusenbauch Meislová
Monika Brusenbauch Meislová
Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University

Monika is also a Visiting Professor at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom, and one of the coordinators of the UACES research network The Limits of EUrope.

Her research work covers issues of British EU policy, Brexit and political discourse.

Monika's most recent research has been published in various journals, including The Journal of Common Market Studies, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, European Security, British Politics, Europe-Asia Studies, and The Political Quarterly.


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