Get Brexit done. Its all Boris Johnson says. If he is asked about the NHS, the economy, education, climate change what he ate for breakfast last night all you gets is “well, um ah, that’s a well, we a need to just get brexit done”.
From a marketing and psychology perspective its a clever strategy. The British public are utterly sick of Brexit. They are sick of hearing about it. They are sick of the country being deeply divided by it. They are sick of the fact that 3 years after the referendum virtually no progress has been made. And people are angry and upset that parliament is been so bogged down in it that it seemingly cannot get on with anything else.
Can the Conservatives get brexit done by January 31st as they are promising in the election? The short answer is no. The slogan is catchy, and taps into public sentiment. But it is also pure unadulterated bullshit. If the Conservatives do form the next government these words will haunt them, especially Boris Johnson.
So why can’t the Conservatives get Brexit done?
In a leaked recording by the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier says The Conservatives plans to wrap up Brexit in the next 11 months is “unrealistic”. Even if the Conservatives manage to pass the withdrawal agreement in January, this is only a transition arrangement with a limited life on it. Once this expires, if no permanent arrangement has been agreed, the UK once again finds itself on the knife edge of no deal hard Brexit.
For an ongoing relationship between the EU and the UK, the EU would expect the UK to continue to comply with various EU regulations. Other states like New Zealand who trade with the EU currently have to comply with various EU regulations in order to sell to that market. Given Brexit was about giving greater independence and autonomy to the UK, this is very difficult for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to sell to the public.
The other problem is that trade agreements take time to negotiate. The EU free trade agreement with Canada took 7 years. If the Conservatives want to try and negotiate trade deals with other countries like the United States – they’ll soon find the US play hard ball when negotiating trade. Trying to get a deal that benefits the UK won’t be easy at all, so again will likely take years.
For Labour, Brexit is no less of a headache. Initially Jeremy Corbyn, very sensibly in my view, tried after the referendum to avoid Labour being too far on either the leave or remain side, others in the Parliamentary Labour Party have pushed it towards a remain position. The wailing and whinging of former deputy leader Tom Watson, Emily Thornberry and other Labour MPs firmly enmeshed in the Westminster bubble have actively pushing for 3 years for Labour to support a second referendum and campaign for remain. Effectively these so-called moderates thought Labour’s path to government was to tell 52% of voters they were wrong in 2016.
Many friends and former colleagues on the left in New Zealand when they talk to me seem surprised that Labour didn’t jump straight on the second referendum campaign bandwagon after 2016. Anyone who has visited or worked in the Midlands, the North or indeed most places in England outside of Greater London will realise that taking such a stance would not go down well. On the left, many regard the EU as an institution that for the last decade has pushed austerity, privatisation and is generally undemocratic. What happened in Greece during the 2015 bailout is often cited as a reason not to be tied to this entity. Brexit wasn’t just something supported by the political right.
The current Labour policy is the best compromise it can come up with given where it is now, which I outlined along with all other party’s Brexit positions in a post last month. But the challenge is that any deal Labour does with the EU will likely see the UK stay in the customs union. A second referendum where this and remain are the options, will not please many Brexit supporters who see the being in the common market as the problem.
The Liberal Democrats anti democratic position of ignoring the referendum result and revoking article 50 went down like a cup of cold sick on the campaign trail. The Lib Dems have now had to revert back to the second referendum position. For remain voters wanting to stop the Conservatives hard Brexit, the discussion has now turned to tactical voting. However this is messy and voters are having to rely on highly dubious polling data or previous election results to make tactical calls. The situation is a bit easier on the Conservative side where the Brexit Party have stood aside in Constituencies the Tories currently hold. However for the Tories there is still concern about The Brexit Party running in key Labour marginals where vote splitting may prevent a Conservative gain.
Brexit is messy and complicated, and has contributed to making tomorrow’s election both volatile and unpredictable.
Whatever the results of this UK election, Brexit will not just get done. The division and confusion will continue for years, whoever wins and whatever policy gets implemented now. What lies behind Brexit is a more fundamental question of English national identity. I say English, not British or UK. In the 2016 election England voted 53.4% to leave and 46.6% to remain. If you take out the strong remain voting stats for London, the picture in England is very much a nation where the majority favours leaving the EU. And that has not changed.
England is at a cross road with its national identity. Increasingly The Saint George Cross Flag rather than the Union Jack are flown across the country. While many still support retaining the union of the United Kingdom, increasingly there is a view that England needs to focus more on its own interests. However this is not universally shared, with many in England, and especially in London saying they identify as much if not more as European than as English.
84% of the British population live in England, so if England votes a certain way, that’s what is happening. I’ve already posted about the impact this has had on Scotland and Northern Ireland. These are very different electorates, and nations with very different view to that of England on Brexit. This is a tension that will continue whatever happens in the general election. For Wales the picture is a bit different. Wales voted to leave, though the voting margin was closer than in England, especially when you exclude the London votes. Time will tell whether similar tension starts to happen in Wales also takes a different position to England on the Brexit question.
So getting Brexit done? Sorry everyone, Brexit hasn’t event started. This was the easy bit. If the next government can survive the next 5 years, Brexit uncertainty and disruption is likely to continue.