General Election 2019

'Getting Brexit Done' Is a Fantasy

The three-word slogan helped the Tories win a historic majority last night. But we'll be negotiating Brexit well into the 2020s.
13 December 2019, 11:10amUpdated on 13 December 2019, 11:20am
What Will It Take to 'Get Brexit' Done?
Boris Johnson and girlfriend Carrie Symonds arrive in Downing Street following the Tory landslide election result. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

The 2019 general election is over. Uninspiring campaigns littered with misleading election ads, cringe-worthy interviews and empty promises have culminated in a larger than expected Conservative majority that Boris Johnson will hope ensures he can ‘get Brexit done’.

Amidst the never-ending onslaught of propaganda, those three words evidently cut through the noise. The simple slogan helped the Conservatives win seats in Labour strongholds they haven’t had a chance of winning for decades. Now he has a majority of at least 76 MPs, millions of Brits who helped him secure it will be expecting a legislative programme that will do just that.

What has Boris Johnson actually promised?

After months of parliamentary gridlock at the helm of a hapless minority government, Johnson was forced into requesting another extension from the EU. This affords MPs until the end of January 2020 to ratify a withdrawal bill. The PM sacrificed his approved Brexit deal in order to call a general election, and will look to revive it now he commands a majority. The Conservative’s manifesto states that the UK will be ‘out of the EU by the 31st of January.

If this pledge is honoured, we will enter a transition period that ‘will not extend beyond December 2020’. In this political limbo, the vast majority of EU regulations will still apply to the UK whilst the government works through its monumental Brexit to-do list.

But is it all just a fantasy?

The gains Johnson has made in this election means getting a deal through parliament by the 31st of January looks probable. But even if he manages this in good time, it’s doubtful many leave voters will consider the transitional period spent under the same EU laws as ‘getting Brexit done’. The date they’ll be looking towards is December of next year, when that spell ceases.

However, a Department for Exiting the EU document leaked to the Financial Times last week suggests that readying Northern Ireland by December 2020 ‘represents a major strategic, political and operational challenge’, and ominously declares that ‘delivery on the ground would need to commence before we know the outcome of negotiations’.

This is far from the only problem. Dr. Simon Griffiths, lecturer in British politics at Goldsmiths University, says "there is going to be a trade border, either across Ireland or down the North Sea. Whichever option is chosen will anger a significant community in the north of Ireland." Constructing delicate customs arrangements that appease both communities will likely take longer than eleven months.

Unfortunately for Boris Johnson, the logistical difficulties his government will experience implementing these customs arrangements will be just one aspect of an enormous legislative programme that needs to be actioned before December 2020.

In the same time frame, the government will be expected to flesh out a deal with the European Union in order to avoid an economic crisis provoked by a no-deal Brexit. Agreements will be needed on a huge number of issues including regulatory standards, transport and security.

Reaching such a deal in less than a year is far-fetched. Dr. Griffiths commented that "the much smaller Canada-EU agreement took seven years, and this was seen as quick." Other experts have suggested there will be a string of deals completed over a longer time period.

The pressure is ramped up by the fact that if the UK needs an extension on the 31st of December deadline, they will have to request it by next July. Interestingly, Johnson’s big win could actually mean an extension is more likely. Placating the hard-line Brexiteers in his party will become less crucial, replaced in part by the demands of Tory MPs who now represent ex-Labour constituencies in dire need of investment. They would be hit hardest by a rushed deal.

If an extension is deemed necessary, our date of departure could be pushed back as far as 2022. Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay admitted in September that this is a real possibility. And even after brokering a deal with the EU, negotiating trading relationships with other nations could mean the UK is still left with a fair amount of ‘Brexit’ to do well into the mid-2020s.

So, when will Brexit be done?

The honest answer is that no one really knows.

‘Getting Brexit done’ for most people is more than just completing the legal and political elements of the departure process. The allure of the promise also rests in the fact people are tired of arguing about what we should do next. It’s fundamentally changed the relationship we have with mainland Europe, our own political system, and most of all, each other.

Many people voted Conservative last night because they want the Brexit process to be over. But whether we like it or not, we are the Brexit generation. When we officially ‘leave’ is almost irrelevant. It’s going to dominate British politics for years to come.

@aarondrapkin

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