IT would be nice if someone in the Labour or Conservative parties would break cover, just once, and admit that Brexit was a mistake. We all know it. Since 2018, a majority of British people have been telling pollsters that they regret leaving the EU – and that majority is growing.

It’s true that there are some theoretical benefits to being outside the EU, like the freedom to say “oat milk” instead of “oat drink”, but people don’t seem to feel that makes up for 132,000 worker shortages in the NHS, higher food prices, and a stunted economy.

The stats are gruesome. Brexit is doing more damage to the economy than Covid did. Last week, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said that Britain’s trade intensity would be “15% lower in the long run than if the UK had remained in the EU”. The UK is the only major economy not to have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies bluntly terms Brexit an “own goal”.

Those supposed advantages we were promised? There have been only three new trade deals signed since Brexit that are not EU rollover deals and none are impressive. Two of them, it’s feared, will be downright damaging to Britain: former environment minister George Eustice said last week that the Australia deal was a “failure”, saying it “gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

Meanwhile the batty “Brexit Freedoms Bill” introduced by Jacob Rees-Mogg, briefly reanimated as business secretary by Liz Truss before being returned to Madame Tussaud’s by Rishi Sunak, is a pointless but dangerous exercise in legislative xenophobia.

It sets an arbitrary December 2023 deadline for all EU-derived laws to fall off the statue books – hundreds of them – unless they are amended or legislated for afresh by then. Bye-bye food standards and worker protections. Trade unions, environmental groups and food safety bodies contemplate with horror a deadline that could see many of the rights and standards British people take for granted simply disappear or undergo changes without proper scrutiny.

It goes without saying that we have suffered since 2016 under the leadership of spectacularly incompetent governments. This is entirely their mess, caused by the elevation of cultish belief over pragmatism. Even now, the merest whiff of compromise with the EU is met with hysteria in Tory ranks. One senior government figure briefed the Sunday Times last weekend that the UK could seek a Swiss-style agreement with the EU to help ease the atrophied trading relationship (the apostate is rumoured to be Jeremy Hunt). It whipped the Brexit banshees into a frenzy, showing that nothing has changed since the May years: only total isolation is acceptable to them.

A Switzerland-style deal would hardly be a win for Britain compared to EU membership. Like the Australia deal, it would epitomise the post-Brexit spirit of low ambition. It consists of 120 bilateral deals, requires Switzerland to pay into EU coffers and temporarily align on food and agriculture standards, all while being excluded from EU policy-making, but it would at least make trading relationships easier.

But you can’t say that in the Conservative Party. Hence Rishi Sunak’s unequivocal denial to the CBI conference that any alignment with EU rules was being contemplated, while in the next breath hailing the “enormous benefits and opportunities” Brexit had created.

How Britain’s enemies must love it, this embarrassing self-delusion.

And what of Labour? Keir Starmer was a Remainer and the sensible one in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, but he rules out a customs union or rejoining the single market. He won’t tell the truth about the damage Brexit is doing, or propose solutions, because he doesn’t believe he can win the next election that way. The capricious gods of Brexit must be appeased if Sir Keir is to fulfil his destiny.

For the same reason, he’s treading a shaky line on immigration. While businesses cry out for a more relaxed immigration policy, Starmer says the country must wean itself off “immigration dependency” and “cheap labour”. These are phrases fashioned for the ears of Brexit supporters, while he adds carefully-worded caveats about pragmatism and avoiding arbitrary immigration targets.

It’s critical we get a Labour government next time round, for the sake of climate change policy and compassion above all else. The electoral maths is dictating Starmer’s political messaging. But so Tory-lite has he become, at least presentationally, that you wonder what he thinks he can achieve in government. If you pretend your way to power, paying grovelling lip-service to a policy you detest, then how can you do what needs to be done once you get there? He’s on course to box himself into the same corner as Mr Sunak, offering himself as a hostage to the pro-Brexit fringe.

We can be fairly sure that in the privacy of his lawyerly heart, Starmer believes that joining a customs union, or the single market, or the EU itself, would be in Britain’s best interests, but he won’t say it. Rather like reforming the Westminster voting system, which he also refuses to put in his manifesto, he fears these policies could be weaponised against him.

Perhaps he comforts himself that he can have a reforming second term, but it’s a precarious proposition. While he pursues Red Wall voters, the LibDems could attract disaffected Labour voters who despair of their leader’s unwillingness to offer an alternative to the Tories on Europe – after all, the Lib Dems are committed to rejoining the single market and most Labour voters are firmly pro-EU. For Starmer, there might never be a second term; if he pushes his pro-Brexit language too far, there might not even be a first one.

Meanwhile, we’re left trying to discern what on earth all this Brexit pain has been for. The freedom to rename dairy substitutes? We’re all losing out from Brexit. It speaks volumes about how broken our politics is that neither of the people vying to win the next election is prepared to say so.