Getting Brexit done

Looking at the long and winding road to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and asking what it means for the future of the UK

Cause for celebration? Photo from @BorisJohnson on Twitter.

— 8 minute read — By Sam Portillo

Four long years after the country voted to leave, Boris Johnson’s negotiating team have struck a deal with European leaders, finally manifesting a future for the UK outside the EU.

The feeling of not quite being European has long lingered in the UK, indeed, ever since the country joined the forerunner to the EU (the European Communities) in 1973. Whether because of the simple observation that, as an island nation, the country is geographically separated from the continent, or the feeling that Britishness is closer to being American or Australian than European, or perhaps, the notion that Britain is uniquely powerful and by all accounts too great to subject itself to external governance, the UK has always thought itself something of an ugly duckling in the bloc.

And yet, before David Cameron conceded to promising a referendum on EU membership, the European question had very rarely breached the heart of the political establishment, who – for all the public’s sentiment and willpower – were the ones who could renew, manage or terminate the country’s membership.

Prior to the 1983 general election, a socialist iteration of the Labour Party led by Michael Foot promised to withdraw the UK from the European Economic Communities with immediate effect. Alas, the party was widely rejected by the populace, picking up barely a quarter of the total vote.

PM Margaret Thatcher was warm to the principle of a single free market spanning several wealthy countries across Europe, as were her neoliberal successors Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron. Indeed, it was Thatcher’s growing hostility towards the European project that led to her eviction as party leader, and two decades of European integration followed, with John Major signing an overarching ‘European Union’ into existence in 1992, and Tony Blair even toying with the idea of adopting the Euro currency in the UK.

Thatcher tells the European Council in Bruges: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state… only to see them re-imposed at a European level”. Photo from

Even in 2016, when the country prepared to vote in a divisive referendum, the political establishment by and large remained pro-EU. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary Theresa May, along with 20 of the remaining 26 cabinet ministers publicly supported the Remain campaign. The Liberal Democrats, who were still 8 percent of people’s party of choice, wholeheartedly supported the cause, as did Labour, dispassionate though it was, with a leader who had once advocated the UK’s departure.

Representing the Leave campaign were 8 Democratic Unionist Party (Northern Ireland) MPs, 10 from Labour, and a large minority of Conservatives. Outside Westminster, however, the passionate rally for ‘taking back control’ led by bombastic Boris Johnson and proud nationalist Nigel Farage won enough people over to win the referendum, not only upsetting the odds, but the political establishment, too.

Theresa May, then, was elected to complete a project that half of her party’s parliamentarians, including herself, had warned against. Her solution? Leave the EU, as the referendum mandated, without properly surrendering any of the benefits of being a member. From a Remainer’s perspective, at least, it was the most ideal scenario out of all the avenues that remained open. EU negotiators however slammed her proposals as naïve, claiming the UK Government was trying to “cherry pick” facets of EU membership without paying its fair share back to the organisation.

The next summer, Theresa May invited her cabinet ministers to the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, in order to reach a final agreement on what the future EU-UK relationship should look like. The Chequers Plan, as it came to be known, set out the government’s intentions for a shared set of rules allowing some level of free trade and a backstop to ensure a smooth border between Northern Ireland, which was following Britain in Brexit, and the Republic, which would remain in the EU. In particular, the Irish border proposal triggered large amounts of criticism, because if passed into law it would indefinitely ban Northern Ireland from diverging from EU rules until European leaders agreed to an alternative deal. Mrs May’s attempt to emerge from Chequers with a united cabinet was undermined by the resignations of two prominent ministers, Brexit Secretary David Davis, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who claimed he could not endorse a deal that would see the country “locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system”.

Chequers Court: the place Theresa May’s cabinet fell apart. Photo by Robert Coleman on Flickr.

From this moment, May seemed to lose all authority as her party’s leader. After the humiliating and provocative resignation from Boris Johnson, a growing number of Conservative MPs voiced their opposition to the deal. With the House of Commons scheduled to vote on the deal on 10th December, May felt obliged to delay the procedure by a month, lest she face certain defeat. After weeks of attempting to persuade fellow MPs, the government could still only muster 202 votes in favour of the deal, giving May’s Brexit plan the unwanted record of biggest government defeat in British parliamentary history.

Losing 13 seats to opposition parties in a general election made the task of garnering a majority for her bill even more insurmountable. Needing 326 votes for her Brexit deal to pass, May attempted to press the same bill into legislation on more than one occasion, gaining 242 votes on the second attempt, and being blocked by the Speaker of the House before the third could take place on the grounds that the government was asking parliament to repeatedly address an issue it had already voted on without “substantial change”. Becoming desperate, May even reached out to the far-removed Labour Party for cross-party negotiations, offered a Remain or Deal referendum and, perhaps most embarrassingly, her own resignation.

Eventually, the Prime Minister did resign, but not because parliament had passed her bill. The Withdrawal Agreement had been rejected by parliament twice, her own party had lost faith in her premiership, and the EU refused to budge. Theresa May had exhausted all options.

Both Conservative MPs and party members seemed to agree on what the situation required: someone new; someone that could win a general election by a comfortable margin, therefore giving Brexit a better chance of passing through parliament, and someone that would take the UK out of Europe at any cost. Enter former Mayor of London, Foreign Secretary and passionate Brexiteer Boris Johnson. The new Prime Minister moved to replace the unpopular backstop clause from the Withdrawal Agreement, proposing to have British businesses pay custom duties when exporting to Northern Ireland, in case they are to be moved through the Irish border into the bloc, and make refunds available where businesses can prove their goods are not destined for the EU. This would let Northern Ireland itself leave the European customs union with the rest of the UK, unlike in May’s proposal. Among other changes to the Withdrawal bill, Johnson’s legislation also outlawed any extensions to the transition period beyond 2020, giving reassurance to Brexiteer MPs that – one way or another – the country would soon pass the line.

Having agreed the terms with Europe, Johnson faced the small obstacle of gridlock in Westminster. In September 2019, the Prime Minister prorogued parliament for five weeks – the usual duration being closer to five days – claiming that time would allow him to prepare “an ambitious new legislative programme”, while others suspected the real intention was to grind down the clock for anti-Brexit MPs.

Just two weeks into the repose, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled unanimously that the move was unlawful, and therefore null and void. Parliament was recalled the next day, but still no more willing to pass the Withdrawal legislation. With the UK due to leave the EU at the end of October, PM Johnson reluctantly requests a deadline extension, this time to 31st January. In the meantime, he hoped to call a general election and shed the miserable minority the party had been plagued with since Mrs May’s underperformance in 2017.

Johnson saw a general election as the only way to overcome parliament gridlock and pass Brexit into legislation. Photo by UK Parliament on Flickr.

Eventually, the opposition parties agreed to an election – the second since the referendum – knowing exactly which issue energised voters most. The Liberal Democrats originally promised to revoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and cancel Brexit altogether. The Labour Party offered a second referendum, giving voters a choice between remaining in the E.U. and a newly-negotiated withdrawal agreement. The Conservatives meanwhile, promised to do what they had been trying to do since 2016 – as their campaign mantra went: get Brexit done.

With the election results clear, one side rejoiced and the other despaired. But the outcome was clear: Boris Johnson’s buccaneering Brexiteers won a landslide victory, consolidating 44 percent of the vote and increasing their number of seats by 48, the biggest increase for any governing party since 1983. Sitting pretty with a comfortable majority of elected representatives, suddenly Brexit was not only achievable for the Conservatives, but inevitable, and totally in their hands, too.

One week after Johnson formed his new government – a blink of the eye in the long and weary post-referendum chronology – the Withdrawal Agreement passed the House of Commons with 358 votes in favour. When sent back to the Commons, amendments to the bill made by the House of Lords were rejected, with the sole voting power of Conservative MPs enough to overrule the changes. For better or worse, the UK was leaving the EU on the terms of Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, with little to none input from other shades of the political spectrum.

After signatures from President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Council Charles Michel, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK was given the green light to leave the EU on 31st January 2020. From this point until the end of the year, the country existed in a transition period, still participating in the Single Market, customs union, and following EU rules while withdrawing from the bloc’s political institutions which meet in Brussels.

Despite suggestions to extend the transition period beyond the end of the year in the wake of the all-consuming coronavirus pandemic – that at one point had both PM Johnson and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier infected – the UK side doubled down on the deadline of 31st December, at which point, the UK would enter a new future outside the EU – with, or without a free trade deal.

What post-Brexit future does Boris Johnson envision? Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

Progress seemed slow throughout the year, with both parties reporting ‘large gaps’ between their negotiating positions. In October, Johnson appeared to give up, telling the country to prepare for a no-deal scenario. “Trade talks are over – the EU have effectively ended them yesterday when they said they did not want to change their negotiating position,” he said.

In retrospect, it seems clear that neither side would allow a no-deal scenario to happen. The UK and European bloc are immediate neighbours, both home to high-standard businesses and millions of wealthy consumers to buy goods and services. Talk of no-deal only served to coax the opposing side into making concessions, with the clear preference on both sides being to strike a free trade agreement.

Both sides continued to push over minor details, like the percentage of fish in British waters the UK could catch, and how far they can diverge from each other on business standards to ensure fair competition.

On Christmas Eve, no less, the negotiators struck a deal constituting a relatively ‘hard’ Brexit. When the New Year began, the UK withdrew itself from the European single market and customs union. Students at British universities were no longer eligible to take part in the Erasmus exchange programme, but students in Northern Ireland could. People and goods would require border checks, and pets could no longer travel with their own passports. As it stands, UK professional qualifications are not recognised in the EU, and vice versa, making it harder for skilled workers to join the NHS, for example.

Such a list reads like a eulogy of benefits that the UK has lost. So, what does the deal add to the country’s future? Well, the two sides have agreed to tariff-free trade, which in itself is worth £600bn to the UK economy and prevents the no-deal scenario which would have made trading with Europe costly and unattractive. It is true that leaving the UK is now free to strike free trade agreements with other parts of the world, like the United States, or up-and-coming economies like Singapore. Finding a partnership that accounts for the value of single market membership, however, will be challenging.

The UK also now enjoys judicial oversight over its own laws, bringing an end to the supremacy of the European Court of Justice, and is able to set its own standards and regulations. A contentious issue in the final weeks of negotiations, access to the UK’s fisheries, culminated in an agreement that the UK’s share would rise from around a half to two-thirds over the course of five years.

For some who voted to Leave, ‘sovereignty’ over the country’s laws and regulations is enough. And yet, there is more work to be done. Financial services, a sector which accounts for 80 percent of the UK economy, receive surprisingly little attention in the cooperation agreement, and so it remains unclear how easy UK businesses will be able to operate in Europe, and vice versa.

People have different ambitions for the country outside the EU. Photo by John Chiral.

According to polls conducted in 2018, 3 in 4 Leave voters were motivated to vote the way they did so by the notion of terminating European influence over UK laws, including over immigration. For the new Conservative leadership, however, which is less concerned about migration than the average voter, Brexit really began in 2019, when Boris Johnson led a successful coup against Mrs May and replaced Remainers like Phillip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd with Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove, some of the few Conservatives for whom Brexit was a raison d’être.

Back in 2013, Raab and Patel, among others, authored Britannia Unchained, a book criticising the country’s “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”, suggesting that they held the country back. In their eyes, the EU were nothing more than an obstacle to a path of prosperity and advancement, setting continent-wide standards for regulations, taxation and the like. Perhaps this is the ultimate manifestation of Thatcher’s vision: in one sense of the word, Britain really is unchained.

For Johnson and his Brexiteers, leaving the EU is about reshaping the UK’s economy in a way that inside the bloc was impossible. After four long years of Leave voters debating what kind of Brexit should take place and Remainers decrying the absence of any plan at all, Boris Johnson’s majority has made it clear: the Brexit project and the Conservatives’ are one and the same.