Brexhausted! Four Years of Brexit Blunders, Part Three: First Bedlam, Then Betrayal

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Britain left the European Union in name in January 2020, but remained subject to the EU, its judges, and its migration regime through a so-called “transition” period. It left in a real sense on at 11 pm on December 31st — according to supporters of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s exit deal, at least. But how did the country get here?

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.

With the fall of Theresa May in June 2019, Tory MPs had at last turned to the Brexiteer king over the water, Boris Johnson, to deliver them from electoral annihilation at the hands of Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party.

Johnson had delayed his entry into the EU referendum campaign, missed his moment when he unexpectedly won it, and hesitated to move against May when fellow Tory Brexiteers had begged him to move against her — he had even voted for May’s “turd” deal on her third attempt to get it through Parliament, fearing, like many Brexiteers, that if he did not accept her fake Brexit then the Remain establishment in Parliament would ensure there was no Brexit at all.

The Brexit Party had now more or less gifted him the succession, however, and with it the keys to 10 Downing Street — but what could he do with his newfound “power”?

Johnson’s administration was much less disagreeable to Tory Brexiteers than May’s, but faced the same fundamental problem: the House of Commons was dominated by Remainers, who would neither agree a Brexit deal nor allow a no-deal Brexit to take place.

The Article 50 negotiating period, supposed to expire in March 2019, had already been extended twice. Johnson found he had no effective means to break the deadlock. Some alterations were made to May’s deal in an effort to force Remain diehards to agree at least some form of Brexit, with the substance of the changes being the subject of fiery debate at the time but so minor that few now remember the details — they were not sufficient to convince the DUP that Northern Ireland was being sold out, at any rate.

Remain MPs did not play along, however — and they did not allow Johnson to force a no-deal by running down the clock, either, with the Tony Blair-created Supreme Court overturning a move to prorogue (temporarily suspend) Parliament before the deadline in a highly dubious and possibly unconstitutional use of their powers.

MPs also forced Johnson to request a third Article 50 extension, with the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, altering parliamentary procedure at will to aid them.

Three times Johnson attempted to call a general election so the people could break the impasse — and three times MPs refused to grant one, fearing the verdict of an angry public on their shenanigans. Once, they would not have been able to do so, with the power to call elections being, like the power to prorogue, an executive prerogative — but David Cameron and his Lib Dem cohort Nick Clegg had made early elections conditional on two-thirds of MPs backing one.

What Johnson’s “warmed up” version of Mrs May’s deal did achieve was MPs’ agreement that, with the country essentially without a government heading into 2020, a general election should be held.

Firmly in control of British politics, it now seems unbelievable that they changed their minds on giving Johnson his election — possibly their long string of parliamentary victories and the anti-Brexit mood among street activists in multicultural London had persuaded them they were fighting from a position of strength.

Brexhaustion Sets In

They were wrong. Remain politicians who drank their own Kool-Aid on the question of the public having changed their minds on Brexit as a result of the years of chaos since 2016 got a rude awakening in the December 2019 snap election.

Johnson, aided once again by Nigel Farage, who opted to stand Brexit Party candidates only in some constituencies, for the most part where they would be likely to take votes away from Labour rather than the Conservatives, won an 80-seat majority under the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, and other bow ex-parliamentarians with a big name in the Westminster bubble but no name (or a bad name) among the general public passed into the footnotes of Brexit history with remarkable speed.

But what did Boris Johnson, the man who had derided the EU’s “colonial” demands, and now the first prime minister since Gordon Brown or arguably Tony Blair with a strong and reliable Commons majority, do with new power?

Step one, apparently, was passing his amended version of the May deal.

The 40-billion-plus euro “divorce” bill, and suggestions it might not be paid if the EU did not negotiate in good faith, rapidly disappeared from the public discourse. It would be paid in full.

The Northern Ireland protocol was also agreed, with the British province subordinated to Single Market rules and divided from the rest of the United Kingdom by a partial customs border. Brexit was to “get done” in January 2020 with the passage of this Withdrawal Agreement — except not really, as it came with a “transition” period lasting right up to the end of the year.

During this, Britain would remain subject to EU control and EU migration and trade policy in every respect — although it would no longer have a vote in the bloc’s decision-making bodies — while a trade agreement would, at last, be negotiated.

Nevertheless, the people celebrated this not-Brexit as best they could in January, with Nigel Farage organising a mass rally at Parliament Square after Johnson’s government opted not to do anything.

Leavers knew they had left in name only, but they had already waited years for Brexit Day, and believed that the “transition”, at least, had a definite expiry date, and that they now had a Parliament which would not attempt to pull a fast one on them.

More than anything, people simply wanted the process to be over. May’s withdrawal agreement had been excoriated as a con job, but Johnson’s passed largely unremarked.

Similarly, people seemed insufficiently concerned when Johnson’s summer deadline for the EU to agree a trade agreement or else face no-deal came and went — their minds now increasingly preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic which emerged from China and the lockdowns which had followed it.

Remainers even used the Made-in-China disaster as an opportunity to push for the transition to be extended — but on this, at least, Johnson could not be budged.

As the weeks and months went by, however, many new “final” deadlines seemed to come and go, right up until December, leaving Britons with business or other concerns in the EU with no certainty about their future.

Remainers and Leaver alike were baffled. The impasse between Britain and the EU had remained fairly constant: the EU wanted Britain to submit to its regulations and state aid rules essentially in perpetuity, via what it called a “level playing field”, as well as a guarantee that Britain would not escape to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

Most controversially, Brussels demanded that the EU’s control over Britain’s fishing waters should continue, as they had long awarded the majority of the fisheries there to European fleets which had come to depend on them.

Johnson, for his part, had always insisted Britain would not compromise on controlling its own laws and its own territorial waters. The “red lines” of the two sides left no room for compromise.

At least, that was the case right up until Christmas Eve, when a deal was produced — and Britain’s red lines seemed to disappear.

Strung Up: Kippers

Johnson had won free trade in goods — where the EU enjoys a massive advantage over the British. Similar trade in services, where the advantage is Britain’s, was not covered by the deal.

The “level playing field” was more or less there, as well, with Britain agreeing that the EU could move to cancel free trade if the British adopted rules not sufficiently similar to its own.

The EU had also retained the right to bid for public contracts on largely the same terms as before — terms which had seen British shipbuilding jobs and even the manufacture of the new EU-free blue British passports farmed out to Continental Europe.

Johnson had also agreed that Britain, unlike, say, Norway and Iceland, would continue with more or less the current fisheries arrangements for at least five-and-a-half years, with British fishermen on their knees from decades of EU plunder receiving only a meagre increase in their quota share, phased in little by little over the course of this new “transition”.

Claims that full control will be returned after this period appear to be misleading, as the text of the deal refers to quotas continuing from mid-2026 “onwards” — or else the EU is entitled to compensation.

Britain had also agreed it would remain subject to the European Court of Human Rights, or else the EU can terminate swathes of the deal — meaning the country will still be subject to the whims of foreign judges.

And, of course, the “divorce” settlement was still to be paid in full, and Northern Ireland effectively separated from the rest of the United Kingdom — the EU even announced it would be posting its own officials to the province as enforcers

Similarly, Johnson allowed the EU to cut the British territory of Gibraltar out of his deal at the request of Spain, which has resulted in a last-minute side deal which will see Spain and/or an EU agency put in charge of monitoring sea and air travel.

These and other, less headline-grabbing downsides of the deal have elicited little objection, however. A tired public do indeed seem to want Brexit to be “done”, and are willing to accept spin they would never have entertained from Theresa May — or are willing to believe that the humiliating concessions on Northern Ireland, fishing, and so on, are only temporary.

Whether the British people will ultimately notice any difference between Johnson’s Brexit and no Brexit remains to be seen. One thing he has secured is an end to the Free Movement of People — but as his government is presiding over massive increases in non-EU immigration and record levels of effectively unchecked illegal immigration, it is likely that the overall net inflow of people will continue to rise.

New trade deals with non-EU countries the EU did not previously have deals with may provide more tangible benefits — although the most lucrative, with the United States of America, may already have slipped away, as the Tories have squandered pro-Brexit Donald Trump’s entire term.

It may be the case Britain ultimately finds itself fighting the same old battles, with politicians saying they can’t protect this steel plant or prevent that contract from going abroad not because the EU ties their hands, but because the EU deal does.

In any event, the war is, at least notionally, over. But it was in the end marked by an exhausted, distracted, and locked down public not with a bang, but a whimper.

Follow Jack Montgomery on Twitter: @JackBMontgomery
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