The Brexit Story from the beginning to now.
In 2008, during the financial crisis, the UK government initiated an austerity programme limiting educational spending, reduction in social care and benefits. In the meanwhile, there was a technology boom, with the development of Fintech and Biotech and start-ups. This generated inward investment which was mainly centred around metropolitan areas. Wealth generation was less developed in old industrial centres such as mining, steel production and ship building which suffered from limited investment. So you had the beginnings of a real schism between booming business/high salaries in certain cities such as London, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle and Leeds with areas of low or no growth, bad debt and great deprivation which were mainly concentrated in the midlands, eastern and northern parts of the UK.
The government of Tony Blair looked to immigration as a means to boost economic growth and decided not to impose any transitional limits on immigration on the accession of the Eastern European countries to the EU. This resulted in a large increase of immigration to the UK and created additional pressure on health care and educational services.
Traditionally, the UK has since the time of Margaret Thatcher adopted a Eurosceptic approach to further European integration. The UK view was that the EU was a mercantile union and in a speech to the College of Europe ("the Bruges Speech"), Thatcher rejected the concept of pooling sovereignty to create a stronger Europe. This was part of the idea of “British Exceptionalism”, a belief in a country with an independent historic tradition which emphasised its special place in the world. In addition, the popular press promoted the idea that British democracy was under siege by the EU’s broader integration policy.
By 2016, a sizeable section of the population was disillusioned by globalism, resentful over austerity and at being left out of the nation’s prosperity. This resentment was directed by the popular press against the so called elites of society. These were mainly the liberal metropolitan population.
UKIP and the referendum
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was skilfully able to tap into the resentment of the population left out of national prosperity. It began to slowly increase its share of votes at local elections and encroach into the electoral base of the Conservative Party. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, in order to stop the growth of UKIP decided to call a referendum on Europe in June 2016 which would deal once and for all with UKIP. He was confident that the referendum would vote in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. The anti-EU Leave campaign was very well organized, and relied heavily on social media campaign and used the services of media companies, such as the now discredited, Cambridge Analytica. The referendum result were that 17.4 million voted to leave the EU against 16.1 votes to remain. Davis Cameron resigned as Prime Minster and Theresa May replaced him.
Once Theresa May became Prime Minister, she set about implementing the referendum result and tried to keep her party united. She gave notice under Article 50 to leave the EU within 2 years and negotiated a EU withdrawal deal which provided for a form of customs union and alignment of Northern Ireland with the EU single market, thereby preserving the Good Friday Agreement (an agreement which established power sharing and eliminated borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland otherwise known as “the Irish backstop”). In 2017 Theresa May called a general election to increase her majority in order to pass the EU withdrawal deal through Parliament which she lost. The Government found itself without a Parliamentary majority and dependant on survival on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which is a pro-unionist mainly protestant party in Northern Ireland. The Theresa May withdrawal deal was rejected in Parliament 3 times.
In July 2019 Theresa May resigned and the Conservative Party elected Boris Johnson as its leader and consequently he became Prime Minister. Boris Johnson was in favour of a hard Brexit strategy and threaten the EU with no deal unless they renegotiated the Theresa May’s withdrawal bill by removing the Irish backstop and making Northern Ireland part of the UK custom’s area. Boris was determined to force the EU to renegotiate and threat to leave the EU by the 31st October 2019 with no deal which was the EU deadline for agreeing a Brexit deal. He suspended Parliament for 5 weeks from 9th September 2019, known as “Prorogation ”, to add pressure on the EU to agree a deal. This was deemed by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to be illegal because the purpose was to deprive Parliament of the ability to debate Brexit. Parliament reassembled and passed a law known as the “Benn Act” after its proposer, Hilary Benn a Labour MP, to require the Prime Minister to ask for an extension to the 31 January 2020 if there was no withdrawal agreement with the EU by 19 October 2019. Boris Johnson failed to negotiate a deal by 19 October and applied for an extension for an EU deal to the 31 January 2020, which was granted. In the meantime Boris Johnson was able to renegotiate the withdrawal bill and agree with the EU a new deal in which the whole of the UK will leave the EU customs union but Northern Ireland remains in alignment with the EU customs union. Legally there will be a customs border between Northern Ireland (which stays in the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which stays in the EU), but in practice things won't be checked on that border. The UK will be free to negotiate its own free trade agreements in the future. Although, the Boris Johnson deal was passed at the first reading in Parliament, it would have been subject to amendment in later stages of the Parliamentary process and the Government had no majority to stop any amendments. Therefore, the Government decided to pull the EU deal from Parliament and press for a general election. Parliament agreed that a General Election was the best solution to the impasse and elections will now take place on the 12 December 2019.
If the results of the December 2019 election leave Boris Johnson with a majority he will press on with his Brexit deal and concluded it before 31 January 2020. He will then need to begin with the negotiations for the future relationship with the EU, which may prove long and arduous. The Conservative Party is mainly populated by Eurosceptics on the right wing of British politics and so the negotiation for a future relationship with the EU is likely to be difficult.
If Labour wins a clear majority, it will renegotiate Boris’s EU deal and with the EU and then put it to a vote in a second referendum or people’s vote.
If there is no clear majority for any party, then there could a minority government with support from other parties. Labour could govern with the support of the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist and Green Party or there could be a coalition government. The Conservatives could govern with the support of the Brexit Part and Democratic Unionist Parties.
Whatever the outcome, the divisions in the country are not likely to heal soon. In addition there is bound to be a strong push for another referendum for Scottish independence and a move in Northern Ireland for unity with the Irish Republic. In remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are the right leaders for this challenge.
Domenic Pini (Pini Franco LLP)