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Brexit: it’s not going away

January 11th, 2020

Black swans apart, it’ll still be the biggest domestic issue of 2020

Brexit seems destined to end with a whimper not a bang. Indeed, after the failure of Mark Francois’ attempt to have Big Ben ring out the moment, it won’t even end with a bong.

Three and a half years after the referendum, seven years after Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech and 32 years after Delors and Thatcher set the Anglo-European fissure in motion in their respective addresses to the TUC and in Bruges, the energy has drained from the debate. For Now. One side has won and both are exhausted and desperately keen to move on to something else – as is the political media.

Even without Trump-and-Iran, Harry-and-Meghan or the breakthrough in N Ireland, the coverage of these final stages of Brexit would be limited: they might be extremely important but there’s no longer any drama: Johnson has his majority, will win the votes and Labour is too distracted by its leadership contest to even try to challenge the government beyond going through the motions in Westminster.

That might change when the Lords have their turn to scrutinize the Bill and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see amendments pass to restore some of the clauses dropped from the pre-election version of the Bill. If so, the government is highly likely to simply knock them back out when it returns to the Commons but either way, the Lords won’t challenge either the Bill itself or the main provisions.

It is true that the European Parliament also needs to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and that before Christmas Guy Verhofstadt floated the idea of rejecting it in order to secure further British concessions but I don’t expect that to come to anything. The majority of the EP must also be sick of the subject and with the UK, EU27 and Commission aligned, would they really want to precipitate another crisis – particularly with a UK government that’d be quite likely to refuse to request the new extension which would then be needed, and where the risks of failure would be so great? I doubt it.

So, once over the line and with Britain out of the club on 31 January, job done? Of course not. For all the desire to move on in 2020, there’ll still be three big Brexit arguments this year. The best way to understand them is to work backwards.

Lastly, there’s the trade deal itself. Britain is due to exit the transition period on 31 December, at the moment without any further form of future relationship beyond the commitments contained in the Withdrawal Agreement. This will almost certainly result in three or four months of intense negotiations in the autumn and winter to try to cobble something together.

While ‘cobbling things together’ isn’t the normal process of trade talks, which usually take years if not decades, they don’t usually operate under the time pressures involved here, nor are they usually about limiting the increase in trade barriers rather than reducing them.

In theory, that deadline isn’t quite so tight. Article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement gives the option to extend for up to 2 years. In practice, two things mean this is unlikely. The first is that the decision has to be taken before 1 July – but at that point, all the pressure in the UK will still be to stick to the original timetable. Johnson will no doubt as usual be detail-light and optimism-heavy: not a combination to favour the caution of requesting an extension – especially as the issue won’t appear critical. And he will want Brexit put to bed early on in the parliament, both to put time between any immediate hit and the next election for reasons of both political memory and recovery opportunity and to enable the government to concentrate on its domestic agenda.

That therefore will be the second, and smallest, of the clashes: whether to extend or not. Some reports from Brussels suggest that the EU leaders think that with his large majority, Johnson is no longer in the grip of the ERG. This mistakes his position. His majority – those Red Wall seats and their equivalents elsewhere in the country – were won in large part of a strong pro-Brexit stance. Whether or not the MPs are actually members of the ERG, on this issue they will be exerting the same pressure.

The other reason that the UK government won’t want to extend is that it makes sequencing the talks more practical – and sequencing is something the EU will be very keen on, as it was in the original talks. There, the UK didn’t have much choice: there was a hard(ish) deadline and if the EU didn’t want to talk trade there was little serious pressure that could be brought to bear in order to make them.

Here, however, while the EU will still want to put its own priorities first and dangle the carrot of UK interests for later, the dynamics aren’t quite so favourable to Brussels. We can assume that the trade deal is a single entity so refusing to agree to sequenced talks wouldn’t take anything else down with it. Even so, ‘talks about talks’ and procedural wrangling could well consume months – adding to the pressure for an extension.

All of which is to say that Brexit won’t go away at all, however much public, media and politicians might like it to. There’s a high chance that this time next year, we’ll be dealing with the fall-out from a failure to strike a deal

David Herdson