What Will Happen in the Days, Weeks and Months After Brexit?

What actually happens next: a hypothetical story.

by Angus Harrison
25 January 2018, 9:45am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

At 11PM on the 29th of March, 2019, the UK will formally leave the European Union. Then we’ll all go to sleep, and then we'll all wake up, and then what? What will happen in the days, the weeks, the months after we actually leave? What actually happens next?

Using interviews with experts, current predictions and forecasts, and the magic of our imaginations, we’ve tried to work that out.

The following account is purely hypothetical. The views of those interviewed are only reflected where they are quoted.

The Days

Nigel Farage will call various media outlets to a pontoon overlooking the Thames, where he will be flanked by a gaggle of white-haired men, their faces glowing with yellow teeth and bright pink spider veins. They'll cheer and clap and pop Champagne corks into the brown water when Big Ben tolls 11.

The evening will be marked by an extended news special hosted by David Dimbleby, during which Jeremy Vine will trounce up and down some virtual white cliffs of Dover detailing the various guarantees and compromises the government’s negotiations have secured.

Face-painted Remainers will line Whitehall, waving EU flags and lit flares. Ian Botham will light a cigar.

The 30th of March, 2019 will be a Saturday. Once the blue and yellow confetti has been swept from the cobbles, and the chained centrists removed from the gates of Downing Street, very little will have practically changed. Legally, the UK will behave almost exactly as it did while it was in the European Union.

Martin Trybus, Professor of European Law and Policy at the University of Birmingham, explains that the UK will have had to transfer all European law before we exit. Some of these laws are "directives", which already have to be transposed into UK law, and then all the other EU laws will be incorporated into UK law under the "great repeal bill", in order to avoid the legal vacuum that would be left if we simply opted out. "At the moment, the stance is that everything in March will become UK law," Trybus clarifies, "so in March, April and May things will stay the same."

It’s unlikely the markets will suddenly crash. Provided a "no-deal" scenario is avoided, planes won’t suddenly stop leaving airports. Nor will the lights suddenly go out. "It doesn’t mean you’ll have the wires cut off," Chaitanya Kumar, senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance, tells me in reference to energy supplies. "That obviously won’t happen."

That’s not to say changes won’t have taken place already. Throughout 2018 and beyond, Brexit speculation will see the British economy continue to underperform and wage growth remain stagnant. In November of 2017, the Bank of England said it expects the level of business investment to be around 25 percent lower by 2019, relative to its pre-referendum forecasts. London’s financial sector will be depleted – professional services firm Ernst and Young expects the UK to have lost 10,500 finance jobs by day one of Brexit. By the end of March, 2019, the UK will already be a far less productive and prosperous place – and that’s before the real changes have become manifest.

After those initial few days, the real transformation will begin. It’s unavoidable. As the EU drafts new legislation that doesn’t apply in Britain, the divergence will start to show. Gradually, Europe and Britain will become increasingly distinct. "From that day, what will start is a drifting apart," Trybus adds.

The Weeks

The UK is booed during their Eurovision Song Contest performance – Hannah Spearitt from S Club singing an original composition called "This Time (We're Gonna Party)" – going on to receive zero points across the board.

Eddie Izzard hosts a series of 'Newsnight' segments in which he visits Brexit-voting areas to see if the people who wanted out are happy with what they got. This mainly consists of him trying to teach market traders in Wigan to speak French. An episode of 'Question Time' ends in chaos when a Lib Dem plant in the audience sets fire to his blue passport and is rugby tackled to the ground by an ex-Marine.

Wetherspoons announces an Independence IPA, which is available for £1 a pint before 5PM every weekday. It’s an aromatic, piney-tasting beer that goes down far too easily.

Manufacturing may be one of the first areas to experience obvious difficulties. Industry will likely have cooled anyway, after the years of uncertainty following the referendum. Many factories may have moved to the continent, and many smaller producers (particularly in the car industry) may have folded altogether, lacking the resources to fully prepare for the shift. From that point, the struggle for the UK will be keeping up.

As Britain begins to fall behind or diverge from EU regulations, UK products will no longer be suitable for the European market – a problem, considering that’s where we sold 43 percent of our exports in 2016. Factories will, in theory, have to choose between running two production lines – one to UK specifications and another for the EU (which would increase manufacturing costs) – or simply producing things to European standards, as though leaving the EU had never happened. As Martin Trybus puts it: "Does that mean I [a UK producer] can stay in the supply chain? Or will I be pushed out by Belgian or Spanish competitors, who are saying, 'Don’t take these Brits with their strange laws, take me instead.'"

In the event of a no-deal, British exporters could face an additional cost of £4.5 billion in EU tariffs. This will either damage the car manufacturing industry beyond repair, or – as with Nissan – mean the government picks up the bill in order to keep the factories on side, at the cost of public services.

Controlled immigration – despite being Brexit’s raison d'être – will prove another major early stumbling block. Dr Emma Carmel, a senior lecturer in social and policy science at the University of Bath, explains that the UK’s already unwieldy immigration system is not equipped for the levels of bureaucracy that leaving the EU will unleash: "The practical obstacles of inserting migrants from EU member states into that very complicated, very opaque immigration system are extremely high."

Dr Carmel anticipates backlogs of paperwork, rising visa application costs and lengthier processes for employers – all on top of a system that is already, as she describes it, "quite difficult for highly qualified and experienced immigration lawyers to make their way around". As for Brits hoping to travel to the EU, the future remains unclear, but Carmel says there could be difficulties. "It’s just really unclear at the moment what that might look like," she adds. "If the UK decides to put a visa waiver system in place for EU citizens, much like the US have for most UK citizens, and they charge for it, then I would imagine British citizens could expect to have a similar kind of charge."

In Dover, lorries of food will sit, rotting in traffic jams at the border, as the backlog of custom checks leaving for Europe builds up. Collapsing under the weight of an ineffectual system and unprecedented levels of administration, civil servants will start to strike. Queues will snake round airports from passport control. Increasing numbers of research units at British universities will be forced to abandon their work as academics leave the country.

The Months

Following the rising food costs, a new budget supermarket called "BRIT SAVE" opens, offering a “five pound weekly shop” to its customers. It closes within six weeks when its fishcakes are found to contain pork rind and pieces of metal.

Nick Clegg, Richard Branson and JK Rowling are involved in the launch of a brand new political party called Forward. They commit themselves to returning the UK to a European Union that they claim is willing to welcome them. They promise a vision for a Europe that works on a local level. The launch takes place in the National Portrait Gallery, alongside an online campaign featuring Clegg and the presenters of 'The Last Leg' recreating the video for Take That’s "I Want You Back”. Alastair Campbell plays his bagpipes.

Boris Johnson leaves government and moves to America to work as a pundit for Fox News and begin writing a novel set in colonial Hawaii.

As the weeks turn to months, in some respects the UK will slowly begin to function properly again. Factories that have been closed for weeks will reopen, and borders will ease up as makeshift solutions are found. Yet, as the country’s finances are distressed and strained, the NHS will be put under pressures unlike anything it is currently experiencing.

"That’s a real concern, as the NHS is already operating beyond the limits of its capabilities," explains Helen McKenna, senior policy adviser at healthcare charity the King’s Fund. "It’s currently not meeting many of the waiting times and performance targets expected at a national level, such as the four-hour A&E target. If Brexit results in funding being further squeezed, then that could be really detrimental to services."

NHS spending is a political decision, so decisions could be made to avert this eventuality, but if the current government continues its current track record, the health service will continue to miss targets. If, as part of leaving the EU, the UK also leaves the European Medicine Agency, then Britain will have to develop its own authorisation system for medicines. This additional bureaucracy may mean we even lose access to specific drugs.

The next major obstacle facing the NHS will be staffing – something that is already a considerable challenge. Currently, around 6 percent of NHS workers are from EU countries. Helen McKenna explains that while the government has reached an agreement that EU citizens currently in UK will be allowed to remain, there could still be serious damage to the workforce as EU migrants leave and less are inclined to apply for posts. McKenna points out that between October of 2016 and September of 2017, the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK increased by 67 percent compared to the previous 12 months, and the number joining fell by 89 percent. "We are already seeing a negative impact on the NHS workforce, which we suspect is in part due to Brexit, although we can’t be sure," she says.

As the months after the 29th crawl on, and beds pile up in hospital corridors, the cost of living will also begin to rise. Seventy percent of UK food imports come from EU member states, so any tariffs outside of the Customs Union will see groceries become considerably more expensive – a no-deal could add £930 to the average household’s yearly shop. Politicians will likely make noise about growing and producing more domestically, but this will take years to develop. In the meantime, the unemployed will be hit hardest, and reliance on food-banks will likely increase.

Energy bills will steadily rise. Chaitanya Kumar explains that National Grid data suggests households will be paying £20 more a year, as energy imported from Europe is subjected to tariffs. In addition to this, the UK will likely have left Euratom – the regulatory body for nuclear energy in Europe. This will mean the UK has to go through the lengthy and expensive process of setting up its own organisation, delaying work on nuclear plants, delaying the import of radioactive materials used in cancer treatments, and potentially leading to power shortages.

Chaitanya also points out that the prospects of future energy projects in the UK will be damaged when we lose access to the European Investment Bank. From 2011 to 2016, the UK received £9 billion to £10 billion for various kinds of energy from the EIB. With that gone, the only option will be the UK’s Green Investment Bank, which last summer the government sold (for less than its worth). "You’ve privatised your only domestic investment bank, you’re set to lose access to European Investment Bank and other European investment bodies. How are we going to ensure that there is finance from future investors, especially when you have to invest a lot more than you already have?" Chaitanya questions. As a result of this, the UK will likely miss all of its renewable energy targets.

As the months pass, Parliament will dedicate increasing stretches of time – in fact, all of their time – to reshaping UK law in their own image. This is when the real shift that March 29th brings with it will begin to become visible. The likely Conservative-led government will then have the power to start changing laws in the UK. "Brexit benefits a right-wing government more than a left-wing one," Trybus adds. "I would bet money on which things will be changed, starting with employment law and labour laws. We have a Conservative government, and that government will – to make a crude remark – want to lower employment protection."

The Years

Moving to Europe is becoming the new moving to London. The typical professional works a stint in Lisbon, Berlin or Brussels, before returning to the English countryside for their retirement. Young people who can't afford the visa stay in the UK drag-racing, drinking and watching "Parlez Vous" – a Netflix sitcom about a haughty French exchange student who ends up being transferred to a council estate in Barking after an administrative error. Johnny Vegas plays somebody's dad.

Scotland has left the Union. Tony Blair is campaigning for the colonisation of the moon. Theresa May is still the Prime Minister.

Nobody can remember the last time they ate a good orange.

Over time, as automation becomes even more prevalent – with 800 million jobs forecast as in danger by 2030 globally – UK factory workers with limited protections will be easy to lay-off. Britain is already a tax haven of sorts – with loose regulation and offshore territories – but a Conservative government would be free to embolden this status in the pursuit of competitiveness. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that poverty will soar, with the number of children in relative poverty reaching 37 percent by 2022.

Dr Carmel suggests the UK should expect more in the way of precarious migrant workers in the years after Brexit. With permanent residency a complicated and expensive process, long-term skilled applicants will likely search for work elsewhere. The demand for unskilled labour will, however, remain high in the food and farming industries. "From thinking about how similar sorts of systems work in other places in the world, [where they] have a highly restricted migration regime but a relatively high demand for very cheap precarious migrant labour, you tend to get a lot of irregular work," she explains. "You get a lot of people doing what you might call – what I prefer to call – 'work arounds'. That just means that people will come backwards and forwards. There will be sort of grey areas where people will sort of work around those restrictions."

The UK may gradually regain productivity levels, thanks to its share of working-age people in comparison to other G7 economies, and over time new international trading relationships will be established. Yet, the drag of the post-exit years will be felt, and much of the UK’s prosperity will depend on how open it remains to international investment and talent.

All of the experts interviewed for this piece agree that the years after the 29th of March could also present opportunities. In healthcare, governments would have the freedom to go further on issues like obesity or smoking. Immigration upheaval could mean an already defunct system is finally given the overhaul it needs – made fairer and less complex. The UK no longer contributing to the EU’s climate change targets mean that the rest of the member states are forced to do more to meet their goals. There could be opportunities for increased employment rights, or radical responses to the automation of industry. None of these are very likely under the current government, but they are possible.

However, what comes first will likely prove a decade of economic hardship and unprecedented stress on public services in the UK. Precarious employment will rise, and those who are employed full time could be subject to increasingly little protection. The NHS, if not drastically tended to, could inch ever closer towards privatisation – although Helen McKenna insists public support for it remains so strong it would take a "very brave government" to preside over its complete dismantling. Challenges that already face the country – housing, social care, transport – will be at best ignored, or worse exacerbated.

What none of this accounts for is the real-world trickle-down, as a generation – the children of the 2010s – falls through the cracks. What happens when, like now, you can’t afford to buy a house, and you can’t afford to go to university, but you also can’t get a hospital bed, or afford a weekly shop? Given the building sense of historic, generational resentment, it’s hard not to see smoke and smashed glass on the horizon. The fallout of March the 29th will reshape Britain in many ways we can’t predict, but we can be sure that the ultimate cost will be high.

As Martin Trybus puts it: "I think, in a few years' time, we will look back on these years as years when we lost a lot of time."