Two years ago today, we were in a quiet, old-fashioned bar in Amsterdam. At some point in the evening the house cat jumped up onto my lap. “He never does that normally”, his owner remarked as he set down our drinks. “He must like you”. Some hours later midnight came and went and Amsterdam night life bustled on as normal. We sat intentionally oblivious of the time, while 47 years of British membership in the EU came silently to an end.
Of course that was the moment of legal Brexit. But what the media has taken to calling “real Brexit” happened eleven months later on New Year’s Day 2021, when the transition period gave way to the new Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). Keen for this proud moment to be scrutinised by as few people as possible, the government published the details of the new relationship on Christmas Day. And in the quiet days leading up to the New Year we read it and wrote up our opinion on what it meant and what may happen next.
So how did we do?
“From now on it’s Project Reality”
Our first observation was that, whatever happened, the government would now own it. Of course, Boris Johnson carried on lying until the last possible moment, saying on Christmas Eve that the deal imposed “no new non-tariff barriers” on trade. But pretty soon the steady drip-feed of bad news began. Some smaller industries collapsed over night: exporters of shellfish, smaller businesses for whom the additional red tape proved too costly, and performing artists who quickly discovered that no visa exemptions had been negotiated for them. Supply routes with multiple border crossing became unviable – anticipated for automotive parts perhaps, but not for Percy Pig. And as the weeks went by, the shortages came to light: supplies, HGV drivers, vets, abattoir workers. In the chaos, stories of animals being needlessly slaughtered hit the papers.
For as long as it sounded plausible, ministers referred to all of this as teething problems. But the issues were not temporary, rather they were a logical consequence of Britain’s choice to become a third party to Europe’s single market. So government ministers adopted a new line. The difficulties were part of a necessary adjustment. Gone were the promises of less bureaucracy; Michael Gove now claimed that overcoming all the new red tape would help to make businesses “match fit”. Gove had once famously dismissed the ability of economists to make predictions. But no one disputed their skill at measuring things. And a year after the TCA, plenty of articles are beginning to put numbers around the damage of Brexit.
All of this, however, is obscured by two things: the pandemic and the fact that the new relationship has not yet been implemented in full. The UK government – once keen to talk up strong border controls –continually delayed the start of new checks at its borders. Some of these began a few weeks ago on 1 January 2022, and whilst this has been overshadowed by other news in the UK, the European press has reported constant delays of more than six hours on both sides of the English Channel. But the main hit is currently scheduled for 1 July 2022, when full controls on products of plant and animal origin will begin.
Where this matters most is in Northern Ireland, which marked 100 years of partition in 2021. At issue are goods that enter Northern Ireland from Britain and may or may not travel onwards in the single market. The UK government wants to trust traders to manage this themselves; while the European Commission points to the NI Protocol, where Britain already agreed to carry out checks and to share the data. Throughout the year the EU has employed a carrot and stick approach – on one hand starting legal action against the UK, while on the other going out of its way to put forward reasonable compromises for headline issues such as the availability of UK medicines in Northern Ireland.
For its part, the government of Boris Johnson seems more interested in prolonging the argument than in finding solutions. But in reality Brexit Britain does not have the bite to match its bark. For all its threats to rip up the NI Protocol, Britain can hardly risk pushing too hard against an EU which has severe counter-measures at its disposal through the TCA and has been enjoying vocal support from the US government and Congress. No wonder then that as the year drew to a close, the man who negotiated all of this – Lord Frost – became the latest Brexiteer to walk away.
“Populism has peaked and the world has moved on”
Our second prediction was that populism would start to run out of steam. At the start of 2021, we were encouraged by Joe Biden coming to office and the Democrats winning two ‘run off’ elections to take control of Congress. Elsewhere from Germany to Chile it was a year when centrists seemed to be winning elections, while populists and nationalists were losing.
In Britain, the government was on a mission to convert Brexit into a more generally right-wing movement. The Queen’s Speech in May was littered with Fox News pre-occupations imported from Trump’s America – Voter ID legislation, restricting the right to protest, cutting foreign aid. This was accompanied by attacks on those the government perceived as critical, including the BBC and the judiciary. But by our reckoning they were misreading the mood in the country – as were the arch-Brexiteers like Toby Young and Julia Hartley-Brewer who tried to lead opposition to Covid-19 restrictions. It was not what British people wanted to hear, except perhaps a very small number of them. And that is perhaps also why in 2021 the newly-launched GB-News flopped so badly.
If anything, it seems to us that people in Brexit-voting English towns and cities wanted everyone to pull together and comply with the rules in order to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. It turns out that is the very opposite of what they were getting from Boris Johnson’s leadership. A rising tide of sleaze engulfed the government during 2021, beginning with the PM’s quest to find someone to pay his interior design bills, then jobs and public contracts for friends, Matt Hancock’s demise and culminating with the recent revelations of Downing Street parties and a general disregard for the rules.
As things stand today Boris Johnson is favourite to become the shortest serving prime minister for over fifty years. No opinion poll by any polling company has placed the Conservatives ahead of Labour since November 2021. And as we passed the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, nett opinion across all types of voters (Leave and Remain) is that it has gone badly. What’s more, the most recent byelections suggest that voters are once again prepared to vote tactically to make themselves heard, shown by spectacular swings in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire and by Labour overcoming threats from the hard left and hard right in Old Batley and Spen.
“We can rebuild”
All of this gives hope of a more moderate and progressive UK government in the future. And as we wrote last year, the TCA is structured to help a future more Euro-positive UK government to rebuild its relationship with our neighbours piece by piece. It depends upon all of us continuing to call out and discredit Brexiteers for their hypocrisy.
But as a member of England’s Euro 2020 squad showed us this summer – that can be done with style!