The UK is staggering towards another Brexit cliff edge. A deal has been agreed between Boris Johnson’s government and the European Union, but there’s very little chance that this will be ratified in London before Halloween, the current deadline for the United Kingdom’s departure.
That date can change, and Brussels may well grant a third extension beyond October 31. This would stop the UK crashing out of the bloc at the end of the month. But it would do nothing to calm the mayhem, nastiness and confusion that has engulfed Westminster for three years.
Johnson says he will ask for an early election on Monday — the third time in his short premiership that he has made this request. Yet there is no political consensus over when this election should happen. So the UK will keep limping forward, with no one able to break the deadlock or provide any clarity for an exhausted public.
It didn’t need to have been like this. Looking back at the last three years, it’s easy to pinpoint the errors that made delivering Brexit on time impossible.
Rewind to June 24, 2016. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, having campaigned to remain in the EU and lost.
That triggered a leadership contest that many thought was an open goal for Boris Johnson. He’d led the successful Leave campaign and had a team of Brexit disciples ready in place. Unfortunately for Johnson, one of his team didn’t think he was up to the job. The man at his side for the referendum campaign, Michael Gove, shocked the nation when he stood against Johnson. This tanked both men’s campaigns and paved the way for Theresa May to lead the nation.
Just weeks after the referendum, this might have been when things first started going wrong for Brexit. May had campaigned to remain in the EU. She needed to prove her credentials as a born-again Brexiteer. She didn’t try to build a consensus or engage with the EU on a way for the UK to leave. Instead, she marched around the country regurgitating meaningless statements like “Brexit means Brexit,” “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and declaring that she didn’t want a hard or a soft Brexit, but a “red, white and blue Brexit.”
Underestimating the EU
As Georgina Wright, an EU expert at the Institute for Government explains, the UK ignored the reality of how Brexit talks would go. “As a big EU member state, the UK could essentially call the shots. If it agreed with a Commission policy, it would say so loudly at the EU Council. If it disagreed, it could say so even louder and build coalitions with other like-minded member states. That was obviously never going to work with Brexit. The UK would be sitting on the other side of the table with 27 member states opposite,” Wright said.
Meanwhile, Brussels was getting its house in order. It appointed Michel Barnier as its chief negotiator and employed a team around him. Back in London, rather than starting negotiations, May cracked on with her Brexit evangelism.
Triggering Article 50
On March 29, 2017, May triggered Article 50, the formal notification of a nation’s intention to leave the EU. No formal negotiations had taken place and no Brexit plan existed.
One of the biggest critics of this decision was Dominic Cummings, the man who pulled the strings of the Leave campaign and now works as Johnson’s most senior political adviser. At the time, he wrote on his personal blog that by not having any plan or agreement in place with the EU, “the government has irretrievably botched this.”
A senior Downing Street aide pointed CNN toward the Vote Leave campaign’s policy on Article 50, as stated back in 2016. Vote Leave said the way forward would be to agree “a new UK-EU Treaty based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” They even went so far as to claim, “We do not necessarily have to use Article 50 — we may agree with the EU another path that is in both our interests.”
In an alternative reality, the implication here is that a Johnson government would have started negotiating with the EU from day one, possibly putting contentious issues like the divorce bill and EU citizen rights to bed. This, the aide claims, would have set a much more pleasant tone for negotiations than the tense atmosphere created by May’s team.
An election backfires
After triggering Article 50, May determined that instead of heading to Brussels to open talks, a better use of everyone’s time would be a snap election. Her logic was that she needed a huge majority to ram through her Brexit plan.
However, as polls closed on June 8, 2017, it soon became clear that this plan had badly backfired. May lost her slim majority in Parliament after alienating both remain voters and those who favored a softer Brexit. And with negotiations in Brussels due to start just days later, she needed a lifeline.
Rather than working on a cross-party basis to create a solution, May cut a deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and its 10 MPs. The DUP supports Brexit but — more than anything — wants to ensure that Northern Ireland remains in the UK at any cost. More on this later.
Brexit talks finally started in Brussels on June 19, 2017. It’s fair to say that they didn’t go terribly well. As one EU source recalls, from day one “the UK had problems with the financial settlement, the role of the ECJ (European Court of Justice), the need for a backstop in Ireland and the sequencing of the talks.”
The EU insisted that these issues were settled, and the concerns of its member states and institutions were secure, before even discussing any kind of free trade deal or future relationship. As the Brexit realities dawned on May, she rubbed out nearly all of her own red lines, and closed in on a deal with the EU in November 2018. May’s concessions to the EU cost her two Brexit secretaries and, most importantly, her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.
It also cost her the support of the DUP, who believed May had sold them out in securing a deal.
Without the support of the hard-line Brexiteers or the DUP, May’s deal was dead on arrival. By keeping the details of the agreement so quiet throughout the process, she arguably made the sting of her perceived betrayals more painful. And the deal’s multiple defeats in Parliament, after months of negotiations, shook the EU’s confidence in any promise made by the UK.
May’s failure made her resignation certain. And from the second she announced her plan to step down, something else became inevitable: the coronation of Johnson as Prime Minister.
Setting the bar too high
The Brexit victors thought they could sweep aside May’s failures and get on with their optimistic vision. What they didn’t bank on was just how poisoned a chalice May had handed over.
Parliament had been at each other’s throats for months. The public was tired, bored and more divided than in 2016. Business was pressing for an end to uncertainty. As a result, Johnson leaned into a much harder Brexit stance. He said he’d get Brexit done, “do or die,” by October 31. He promised to get rid of the Irish backstop mechanism that helped doom May’s deal. He said he’d secure a new deal. He swore he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than request another extension. And he told the DUP that he would do nothing that harmed the union.
Johnson set the bar too high. And, ultimately, he found he was going to have to throw someone under a bus. When he returned from Brussels with a surprise new deal earlier this month, the DUP told the PM that his deal was even worse than May’s.
Privately, some DUP MPs now express regret for not backing May’s deal. It might have left Northern Ireland tied to the EU, but it also tied it to the rest of the UK. Johnson’s deal does the one thing the DUP insisted against: it makes a special case for Northern Ireland, meaning it deviates from the rest of the UK.
Mired in confusion
Without DUP support, with the backing of more liberal Conservatives long gone, and with no serious cross-party talks to speak of, Johnson is stuck.
Parliament doesn’t trust Johnson. The Prime Minister cannot do anything without the consent of Parliament. The EU is getting sick of granting Brexit extensions only for the UK to waste time. Even an election could result in more confusion.
There is no clear evidence that any single party can secure a majority. An election would likely result in another minority Conservative government or a coalition between the main opposition parties, all of whom hate one another and don’t agree on a way forward.
There is no easy fix to the Brexit crisis that doesn’t make it all worse. Two Prime Ministers and various opposition figures have made promises they cannot keep. It’s left the nation horribly divided and seemingly with no way out.
Brexit is supposed to be done next Thursday. In reality we will probably still be talking about this for months, if not years, from now.