World

Life after Brexit

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a thumbs up after signing the Brexit trade deal in London, England, December 30, 2020. (Leon Neal/Reuters)
What comes next for the U.K. after leaving the European Union.

By a parliamentary landslide of 521 votes to 73, the U.K. House of Commons just voted to ratify the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the European Union and the United Kingdom that was agreed to on Christmas Eve and that will come into effect at midnight on December 31. All that’s left to do is for the House of Lords to reluctantly endorse a verdict that is popular both electorally and constitutionally, and for the Royal Assent to be given. That’s expected either very late tonight or tomorrow morning. Then, at that same midnight, the transitional one-year period between the formal departure of Britain from the EU (i.e., Brexit) and its practical implementation will be complete. Four and a half years after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Britain will finally regain its previous status as a self-governing independent democracy.

It’s the end of one of the most hard-fought struggles that has ever roiled the British political system, and a great political victory for the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who 13 months ago was fighting — and not visibly winning — a seemingly interminable battle against the entrenched forces of Remainerdom in Parliament and in the wider political establishment. It’s also a victory for the small but principled band of Brexiteers in the Tory European Reform Group (ERG) who were a minority of a Eurosceptic Tory minority when the campaign for a referendum on EU membership began seriously in the 2010 Parliament and who have achieved 90 percent of their aims. And though their names have not been on top people’s lips today, it’s a massive personal triumph for Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings, too. It will be a scandal and a shame if Mr. Farage is not granted as a tribute the peerage he refused as a bribe, and if Mr. Cummings (who may not want early retirement in the Lords) does not get equivalent recognition.

And as far as any political change can be called irreversible in a democratic society, it looks irreversible or, to be more cautious, reversible only in the very long run. That’s the case because the balance of political opinion in and out of Parliament is in favor of Boris’s TCA and even more in favor of not re-opening the Brexit debate. A YouGov poll showed public opinion supported the deal by 57 percent as against 9 percent rejecting it with 34 percent retreating into Don’t Know territory. The Tory Party, which for most of the decade had been split between one-third that supported the Tory leadership in supporting EU membership and two-thirds wanting (if usually discreetly) to opt out, was today united. All but two Tory MPs voted for the TCA, and their abstentions may not have been for political reasons. (Both ERG members, they had supported Boris’s deal.) For the next generation or two, the Tories will be the Brexit Party without qualifications, if only because they won’t want to return to the deep divisions of the last four years. For almost that long, therefore, they’re likely to occupy the commanding heights of politics and opinion.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is privately a Remainer, saw that risk clearly and took the bold decision to whip his party into the Yes lobby. Most Labour MPs went along with this prudence, which explains the size of the government’s victory. But the awkward fact for him is that Labour Party opinion is still deeply divided on Brexit, with the majority leaning heavily towards Remain or, as it now is, Rejoin. In the vote today, 37 Labour MPs abstained, and one voted against. That’s roughly a five-to-one split in the parliamentary party. But the division among party activists is likely to be still more favorable to Rejoin. Even if Starmer succeeds in holding the new pro-Brexit line against the assaults of the Left, the activists will make the reversal of Brexit their main topic of agitation — the role once played by nuclear pacifism — and that will greatly complicate Starmer’s task of winning back Labour’s traditional blue-collar vote, which is the rationale of his post-Brexit policy. It’s a problem similar to a Rubik’s Cube.

The only parties united in voting against the deal, therefore, are the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) from Ulster, and the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). The Lib-Dems opposed it because being European is their unique selling proposition. The DUP opposed it because they rightly argue Ulster unionism has been damaged by Boris’s deal, imposing a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, thus dividing the United Kingdom. The Scot Nats opposed it because they badly wanted a No Deal, which they believe would make it easier to win independence. On the whole, this alliance of the Outs will not worry Boris overmuch — it positions him slap-bang in the solid center. In particular, his deal gravely weakens the SNP’s argument for independence, and its decision to vote against the TCA — thereby voting for the No Deal they claim to oppose — has made them look ridiculous. Scottish independence is a real threat (though, paradoxically, one that would strengthen the Tory grip on England and Wales), but a significantly weaker one than it was before Christmas Eve. The Scot Nats would now have to make a case for a No Deal departure from the U.K. without having the safe-ish harbor of EU membership or any clear passage to it.

That said, all three parties will be arguing for Rejoin (or something like it) for the rest of this Parliament. That argument will be presented as more serious than it really is because of a bug in the U.K. political system; namely, that the media, in particular the BBC and the heavyweight newspapers such as the Financial Times, The Economist, and the Times, are so passionately in favor of Remain/Rejoin that they are likely to misread whatever happens as a sign of its historical inevitability. For a whole raft of reasons, however, rejoining the EU will be next to impossible. I would explain why, but there’s no need, since the brilliant Scottish blogger, Effie Deans, has done so with economy and wit here. Permit me to quote from it at length here:

What would Rejoin mean?

  1. Britain would have to sign up to join the Euro.
  2. We would have to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Look up Black Wednesday 1992 if you are too young to remember.
  3. We would have to join Schengen which would mean there would be no border controls at all between Britain and France. The people in the camps could just get on the Eurostar. Anyone who could get into the EU could get into Britain without even being checked.
  4. We would have to pay the EU membership fee without the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher.
  5. We would have to renounce any trade deal we made with USA, Australia, New Zealand or anyone else.
  6. We would have to sign up again to the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, giving up control over our agriculture and fish.
  7. We would have to reapply EU law and accept that EU law was supreme.
  8. We would have to sign up to the EU’s Covid bailout fund and any future bailout fund to take care of those EU economies that have been wrecked in the past decade and more.
  9. We would have to give back all the powers that we have received because of Brexit.
  10. We would have to accept that Britain would eventually become a region in a United Europe. The EU would never allow Britain to rejoin in a half in half out fashion.

At the next election neither Labour nor the Lib Dems will campaign for Rejoin. It’s one thing to argue for Remain, but that argument is now gone. Britain could not expect to go back to where we were in 2016, just to cause trouble again. All the opt outs and dragging our feet about European integration would have to be jettisoned. We’d have to be fully on board the EU project if we wanted to rejoin. We’d have to be good Europeans rather than troublemakers.

And after all we’ve gone through to get out, that would be an intolerable prospect.

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