Speaking to business leaders on Thursday night, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was deeply critical of the British government's handling of Brexit, whose consequences continue to hamper the British economy and strain UK-EU relations.
"After two years of denial and avoidance, we now have to face the hard truth: Brexit is not working," Khan said at London's Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London – a separate title that pertains to the City of London, the nation's financial heart. Parts of the speech were released to media ahead of the event.
Khan argued for moving away from the "unnecessarily hardline version" of Brexit and told business leaders that the UK needs a "pragmatic" debate on rejoining the EU's single market: "Ministers seem to have developed selective amnesia when it comes to one of the root causes of our problems. Brexit can’t be airbrushed out of history or the consequences wished away."
Khan has been a longtime opponent of Brexit and whilst his criticism is directed firstly at Rishi Sunak's Conservative government, it is also in part aimed at Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who previously campaigned against Brexit at the 2016 referendum but has now shifted his stance and ruled out a return to the EU.
Damaged but not beyond repair
Khan stressed the negative economic impact of Brexit, including how GDP has fallen 5.5%. He called for efforts to "sensibly and maturely mitigate the damage that’s being inflicted."
"It’s weakened our economy, fractured our union and diminished our reputation. But, crucially, not beyond repair."
"We need greater alignment with our European neighbours – a shift from this extreme, hard Brexit we have now to a workable version that serves our economy and people... That includes having a pragmatic debate about the benefits of being a part of the customs union and the single market."
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He insisted that "no one wants to see a return to the division and deadlock" of the past few years but highlighted the damage Brexit has inflicted "at a time when we can least afford it... The reality is that the City is hard hit by the loss of contracts and talent."
Support for Brexit is at an all-time low in the UK. According to a YouGov poll in November, 56% of the British public said it was wrong to leave while 32% still believe it was the right decision – yet importantly, this does not mean that they agree with the government's handling of the exit from the EU.
One in five of those who voted for Brexit now believe it was the wrong decision. The main reason respondents gave for changing their mind was a sense of things going badly for the UK since Brexit.