Brexit Populism Trumped?

Today marks the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. We can hope it signals the demise of his brand of populist politics too.

It was Trump himself who compared his 2016 election win to Brexit. Nigel Farage and the leaders of the Leave.eu campaign wasted no time in grabbing a photo opportunity with him. Brash claims were made about cracking the code of representative democracy. The right wing press confidently predicted that similar movements would soon sweep to election victories across Europe. Lurid press headlines pointed to the next up-coming election – whether in France, the Netherlands, Austria or Sweden – that would supposedly trigger the unravelling of the European Union.   

But of course that did not happen. With hindsight 2016 looks like a high watermark of populism. Quickly it became clear that Trump did not know what he wanted to achieve in his presidency. Rather, he continued to campaign and pursue personal grudges through Twitter. The world looked on and decided this was not what they wanted. One by one, populist parties in Europe underperformed against hyped expectations – and many of them started to distance themselves from Trump and Brexit.

Britain was not as fortunate as the rest. To the bitter end the UK government continued pandering to the president in a fruitless effort to secure a trade deal, later downgraded to a ‘mini deal’ – anything they might be able to claim counterbalances the economic damage of Brexit.  

It isn’t hard to imagine why Boris Johnson found the Trump approach to politics appealing. Spread confusion and conflict – it’s easier than taking responsibility. Cultivate the image of a rule-breaker – your supporters will forgive your lack of ethics. Convince them that everybody lies – they’ll stop expecting you to tell the truth. For a while it seemed that integrity no longer mattered, this was the new way to do politics.

But a large section of Trump’s party was tolerating him only as long as he was winning. Today he is a loser many times over. He lost the presidency, 7 million votes behind Joe Biden, becoming only the third President in modern times to fail at re-election. He lost control of the House of Representatives for the Republicans. Following two votes in Georgia on 5 January his party also lost control of the Senate. And by being a bad loser, Trump now faces an impeachment trial for inciting insurrection following the events in Washington DC which led to five deaths.

And so today America gets a fresh start. In Joe Biden they have a president of the centre ground, who perhaps has more chance than anyone to be a leader for the whole country and start healing the division of the last four years.

Now Britain needs a fresh start as well. There is much work to be done to move on from the current lockdown conditions. As we do, the serious and long-term effects of leaving the EU single market and customs union will become ever more visible. The time has now passed when these issues could be brushed aside with platitudes about “prospering mightily”. There is no more road to kick the can down.

At this stage it is British exporters who are most acutely affected, and many are likely to go out of business. They now find themselves on the wrong side of Europe’s external controls, having weaker alignment (for example on agrifoods) than even a distant country like New Zealand enjoys with the EU. Even business groups that were formerly supportive of the government are speaking of betrayal and chaos, as we saw this week with the Scottish Fishermens’ Federation. High numbers of vehicles are being turned back or delayed at ports. As a result it is becoming more difficult and costly to move goods in and out of the UK, as delivery companies and hauliers take mitigating actions and many drivers opt to stay away.  

So far the government has tended to describe these as teething difficulties, implying that they will ease over time. There are four reasons why this is probably not the case.

  • 1. The volume of traffic remains low. Due to current Covid-19 conditions and stockpiling , the overall traffic through Britain’s ports remain very low at the moment. Those who can afford to wait are not shipping goods and so ports are dealing with less than half their normal capacity. This cannot last indefinitely however.
  • 2. Some of the changes have not happened yet. Traffic is two-way, and Britain has decided to spend six months slowly phasing in controls on inbound goods that it is obliged to introduce. Northern Ireland is still operating a ‘grace period’ until 31 March 2021, with supermarket chains warning that they cannot possibly be ready for the switch.
  • 3. People are not yet travelling.  Under the terms of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, the default rules for business travellers are complex and varied. Covid-19 restrictions mean that this is not yet visible, but problems are likely to arise when people start travelling as well as goods.  
  • 4. Not all of the decisions have been made yet. Businesses are braced for further disruption when decisions are made about the UK financial services and data protection adequacy.

These emerging issues are serious that will affect people’s livelihoods. They are not teething problems, rather consequences of the choices the government has made and the deal it negotiated with the EU. It would be nice to imagine that the evidence will be gathered and a period of reflection will follow.

For the time being, we’ll settle with taking a moment to we wish all the best to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.


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