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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Brexit in 2020: just getting started

17 Dec 2019 - 14:47

When it comes to Brexit, British politics has often felt like it is the blind leading the blind. It is easy to lose track of the many times the UK and its government have lacked a strategy, set unrealistic ambitions, made political missteps, and have shown a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face.

Surely then, Boris Johnson’s victory in the 2019 General Election provides Britain with the vision and leadership to ‘get Brexit done’?Looking ahead, however, many things that appear clear and certain are actually blurred, out of sight, or in the blind spot.

Johnson’s slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ in reality is ‘Get Brexit Started’

The most obvious is Johnson’s election slogan. ‘Get Brexit Done’ in reality is ‘Get Brexit Started’. The UK’s exit in January 2020 will be the end of the beginning of Brexit. What follows will be a transition period until December 2020 and the start of negotiations over a new UK-EU relationship.

What is more than clear is that the UK is not, as one of May’s negotiators noted recently, ‘match fit’ for those negotiations. The UK lacks the ideas, plans and institutions to move forward with a coherent strategy. Johnson has been vague about what he wants to happen. His Commons majority is a powerful means, but can only be that: a means to an end. It cannot vote into existence an unrealistic goal.

The most unrealistic goal is negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement by the end of the transition period in December 2020, something Johnson has said he will achieve. He has until July (possibly longer) to seek an extension beyond December. By then it will be clear if he has control of his parliamentary majority. Many of whom are new, untested and unknown.

Johnson might have the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher won the 1987 General Election, but no PM can ever take their backbenchers for granted. That same 1987 intake ousted Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Since the 1980s the House of Commons has become more rebellious (something Blair, with his 179 seat majority, experienced), no party has a majority in the House of Lords, the judiciary has become more active, and new centres of political power exist in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Greater London.

Scotland especially will consume the time and attention of a PM who does not want to go down in history as the last prime minister of the United Kingdom

Everyone has been drawn to the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and they certainly raise existential questions about the future of the UK. Scotland especially will consume the time and attention of a PM who does not want to go down in history as the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Looking not far ahead, however, reveals that the first electoral test for this government will be in England. May will see local council elections across England. A lot of the focus, however, will be on London, which will hold its mayoral election.

Whether the Johnson wins again or Labour and other parties see something of a resurgence, the focus on England will be a reminder to not just look at Scotland or Northern Ireland. The future of the Union, much like a lot about Brexit, rests on the outlook of the English.


Tim Oliver
Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London