Westminsters Insiders React to Brexit Finally – Finally! – Happening

"90 percent of the media, politicians and pundits still don’t have a clue what they are talking about."

by Marie Le Conte
31 January 2020, 10:29am

Nigel Farage waves a flag in the European Parliament. Photo by Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

Well, it’s happening. After one million pointless fights and what feels like 400 years, Brexit is finally happening. We’ve had three and a half years of it looking like it was going take place, then maybe not, then definitely, then almost certainly not, then who knows?? – tonight the UK is leaving the European Union.

To mark the occasion, we talked to Westminster insiders – wonks, MPs, advisers, journalists and the lot – and asked them to reflect on everything the tedious, neverending and fraught journeywe’ve collectively been on since the 23rd of June, 2016. Anonymously, of course, so they could be honest.


“From the exit poll in the June 2017 election to the exit poll in December 2019, it just got more and more absurd – a constantly crumbling cabinet, Parliamentary procedure being like a soap opera and then a prime minister’s team genuinely briefing he was just going to break the law. There was even a point in 2018 when the front pages of national press were dominated by possible models for customs procedures like it was the greatest ideological battle of the time... customs procedures.”

“It was always going to be difficult; it didn't need to be that difficult... But perhaps it's easy to say that with the hindsight of 2020. It was unprecedented. Everyone was un-, or at least under-prepared. And the convulsions of 2016 were decades in the making.”

“90 percent of the media, politicians and pundits still don’t have a clue what they are talking about. Which after three years is slightly upsetting.”

“I think everyone in Westminster quite enjoyed leaning into the leave/remain culture war - though I don’t say this approvingly… What too few realised was that kind of game playing would make people really despise a lot of the political class who loved talking about this stuff.”

“The weirdest points for me have been all the times I've watched intelligent politicians say things they once knew to be convenient untruths and have since come to believe, because they've said them so many times campaigning for a certain outcome.”


“Being from the 2017 intake, I didn’t know any different. Other MPs told us that it wasn’t always like this – we used to get things done. It was two and a half years of taking each day as it comes because the political landscape was changing that quickly. That wasn’t just from the government, but from within our own party as well.”

“There was a bit of me that thought 'is now the time to have children?' and, actually, I've probably delayed my career progression in doing it. But since coming back to work, I've noticed how burned out and haggard everyone else is. Having a baby is exhausting but at least I have a feeling of having actually achieved something, which I get the sense people who covered all those debates into the small hours don't…”

“In a slightly perverse way – the past three years have been quite enjoyable, if also very frustrating. Before Brexit no one at all cared about the niche area I specialise in, but for a time it became front-page news.”


“She was doomed from 2017. She’d already set herself an impossible vision that she seemed to realise she didn’t actually want and couldn’t deliver.”

“She couldn’t have done much else differently without being a different person, and she wouldn’t have won the leadership in 2016 if that had been the case.”

“May's approach was about damage limitation, which always begged the question: why bother in the first place? I think her whole 'Brexit means Brexit' shtick shows she didn't really know what it meant and that was her undoing. Of course, not having a clear vision and being an awful campaigner then meant she lost her majority and from that point on the parliamentary paralysis was inevitable.”


“Personal opinions about the PM aside, he's gone on a successful charm offensive in Europe and won a huge mandate from the UK so he is clearly a persuasive individual – more so than his predecessor. And, although I think it's impossible to unpick his commitment to Brexit from his own personal ambitions, he does have a clear idea of what he wants.”

“There are wider questions about how he got here – prorogation, lying to the Queen, breaking conventions right left and centre. I'm concerned about his disdain for the media and ability to avoid scrutiny both from journalists and Parliament – the changes to the lobby are escalating and are concerning, he has already dodged two liaison committee hearings and he isn't exactly in the Commons very much. So although I think for the sake of everyone's sanity a return to majority government is good, the size of majority he has allows for him and his team to act with overweening presumption. He's also thin-skinned and bears a grudge.”

“Johnson is a much better salesperson. And people don’t seem to care that he is full of shit. He also is much less concerned about the union and bringing together the country. Whereas May genuinely wanted to find a Brexit solution that would satisfy everyone in Northern Ireland (both nationalist and unionist), Johnson understood that the hardliners in his own party didn’t give a damn about Northern Ireland and binned the DUP at the first possible opportunity.”


“Parliament finding its voice was a benefit, even if that did add to the sense of chaos. But parliament was never there to provide the government with 'unity' – it was there to provide challenge and scrutiny. Will a new speaker, the biggest majority in years and a new crop of Tory MPs who owe their seats to Boris Johnson curtail that parliamentary power? It will certainly be different.”

“We do need to talk about the other big issues that affect the future of the country which have been neglected. But the risk is that everyone – especially the media, parliament and other SW1 scrutineers – takes their eye off the ball just as the really hard bit of negotiation and implementation begins.”

“Westminster is going to have to pull its finger out if it wants to prove the Brexit doubters wrong. That will take a different type of energy to what we saw over last three years and requires MPs to be more mature, less obsessed about position and intrigue, and develop some kind of hinterland outside the snakes and ladders of Westminster. If they don’t do that, we won’t be very successful outside the EU.”

“While I think we’re about to have a period of the government and media pretending there are other things to focus on, by the end of the summer – with the possibility of a big [financial] crash at the end of the year back in play – everyone will start panicking again.”


Boris Johnson
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