Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?