Just before Brexit became law in Parliament this week an exhausted minister added up the numbers and said he deserved a medal. He had spent 230 hours debating it in the House of Lords. There have been 179 select committee reports and 859 ministerial statements. MPs and peers have stood up to ask about Brexit 6,241 times and have sent an extra 15,366 questions in on paper.
Last year was a maelstrom: meaningful votes, late-night crises, resignations, two prime ministers, careers crushed and a general election. Close to a million people marched through London against Brexit and millions more backed Boris Johnson on polling day to get it done. They lost sleep, they lost friends and there was nothing else in the news.
All that obsession — and, despite all of it, no one, not even the Prime Minister, knows what happens now. There’s been a weary silence since Christmas, as if Brexit doesn’t exist. When the Withdrawal Agreement, which organises our immediate departure, became law yesterday it didn’t even make headline news. Maybe a psychiatrist could explain why. Enjoy the peace while you can. The wild politics of 2019 won’t be back, but the Brexit show is returning.
At 11pm a week today — taking back control doesn’t stop Brexit being settled at midnight on European time, not ours, with London an hour behind — the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. A few people will have parties. A few will hold a wake. The first day outside the EU won’t feel any different to the last one in it. We will be part of a transition deal which runs until the end of the year. So travel this summer will feel normal. Factories can still send their goods abroad. Britain’s 73 MEPs will lose their jobs — but no one can remember who they were, anyway.
But relief that no-deal horror hasn’t arrived, that we don’t have to eat tinned beetroot and Spam from emergency stockpiles and swap Marbella for Mable-thorpe for our holidays, may be short-lived. The Prime Minister wants to end the transition deal at the end of this year and get a free trade agreement (FTA) in its place. He doesn’t have to, he could extend the transition, and some of his recent remarks suggest he could wriggle on timing a bit but he seems serious. That means a short, sharp, shocking separation on December 31.
What could it involve? The Political Declaration agreed between Britain and the EU at the same time as the transition has lots of happy words. “The future relationship should be approached with high ambition with regard to its scope and depth, and recognise that this might evolve over time,” it says. We’re neighbours, we’ve loads in common, mostly got on, surely we can patch up the friendship, it implies. But it’s only a wishlist. It doesn’t say how any of this will happen.
The Prime Minister and his team — Michael Gove, perhaps, who might be leading on Brexit after the reshuffle, and David Frost, the diplomat who is going to head what’s being called Taskforce Europe — will aim to set out the UK’s terms, fast. In the last negotiations the EU won hands down: it planned the way the talks worked. This time, can Britain make it clear what it wants by the end of February and get the EU talking?
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Commission, and Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator who clearly enjoyed the first round of Brexit talks so much that he’s back for more, will be awake to any tricks. They want talks done their way, which might take time and will involve making a lot of demands on tricky issues such as fishing rights before settling anything we want on trade. Barnier is leading the UK Task Force. Apparently the “UK” comes at the start after someone in Brussels spotted the other way around sounded like an expletive, TFUK.
One of the first things each side needs to decide is how big a deal they want. Anything close to the wide relationship imagined by the Political Declaration could take years and would have to be ratified by each member state. As Frost set out in 2016, when he had the enjoyable job of running the Scotch Whisky Association and not Brexit: “I don’t believe we can agree, ratify, and implement a Canada or Swiss-style FTA in two years. It is just too complex.”
That’s still true. So if the Prime Minister means what he says about a divorce this year, then it can only be a far smaller deal that doesn’t even come close to the one even Canada has with the EU. It might be possible to get something like this done in time — if it was small enough it could be signed off quickly by the EU and not its members one by one.
It could amount to not much more than a bit of paper working out how to keep trade flowing and avoid chaos at Dover. Services would not be part of it, which is most of the UK economy, including the City of London. Maybe the EU will agree to widen it a bit, and agree common rules on things like state aid to failing businesses while not insisting on equal terms on things like employment and social protection. But even that sounds unlikely.
It would be a way harder Brexit than anyone imagined in 2016. It would leave the UK free to do trade deals elsewhere. There’s talk of quick wins with Japan and the US, although the chances of steering the latter through Congress in an election year must be zero. This hardcore approach to talks has consequences for us all. Frost warned in 2016: “It will be our most complex negotiation ever. We can’t afford to get it wrong. Whole industries could be destroyed if we do so.”
We might not even know about it until it is done. Unlike last year, there’s not going to be drama in Parliament. With an 80-seat majority, what Johnson says goes. There are no Remainer rebels left to pull him back into line. Brexit won’t be in the news and we’ll only hear rumours. Ministers aren’t on the BBC much. In the Commons they will get an easy ride. If the Government settles for a deal slimmer than a slimline tonic, no one can stop it.
That free hand could play the other way. The EU may think the PM, unlike Theresa May, is strong enough to cave in on things like fishing rights, economically irrelevant but symbolic, in return for a deal. They’ll hope his bluster disguises compromise. It happened last year when he agreed a trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland while pretending not to.
So maybe we could still end up with a wide, close relationship. Don’t bet on it. Backed by a majority, the PM will want things to go his way or no way at all and he intends to get Brexit done. That means by December we could be back to a no-deal exit. Brexit the sequel’s going to be a thriller.