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On 'getting Brexit done': reflecting on the 2019 general election

Patrick King, IDEAS Blog editor

From the motherland of the unwritten constitution has been spawned the unwritten manifesto: if post-truth were the favoured soundbite of the 2016 Brexit referendum, ‘pithy truism’ is surely that of 2019’s general election. The name of the game? Campaign slogans that can be embroidered on the front of a baseball cap — albeit now with the quintessentially-Cummings ‘get Brexit done’ in lieu of ‘take back control’ — not only capturing the shared frustrations of Remainers and Brexiteers, but also delivering the Conservatives an eighty seat majority to show for it, their largest since Margaret Thatcher’s tenure. Yet the same question as always persists: how? What precisely does it mean to take back control, or indeed to get Brexit done? And for those in the North of England who ‘lent [Boris] their support,’ it is hoped the former will consist of something more than merely rolling back the frontiers of the Brussels legislature, only to see elite-centric law making reimposed at the London-level.

Unfortunately, for People’s Vote advocates, this outcome signals the ‘cutting off of the oxygen supply’ for the already (somewhat) asthmatic second referendum movement, with Johnson’s withdrawal bill receiving royal assent only four days ago. Thus, the British ‘pro-Europe’ argument will have to be made independently of EU membership. Whether this entails a referendum on rejoining the EU in the mid to long-term, as alluded to by Labour MP Jess Phillips, is an interesting debate, although arguably secondary to the immediate concern of ensuring the UK’s ‘future relationship’ with the EU is as close as feasibly possible given the constraints of a front bench comprising the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel, and Michael Gove, among other fanatic Eurosceptics.

This writer fears that (to an uncomfortable extent) as this process plays out, it will become apparent just how insufficient Brussels scapegoating is as an explanation for the domestic hardships of the UK: from austerity economics and the oft-cited ‘North-South divide,’ to a dysfunctional social care system and increasing political apathy amongst the country’s working classes — nearly half of whom now no longer turn out to general elections, according to Ipsos MORI. Indeed, nine of Northern Europe’s ten most deprived regions are to be found in the UK: perhaps recognised in Cornwall and South Wales, for instance, receiving the equivalent of around £800 per capita from the EU’s Structural and Investment Fund (Telegraph, 2016), more comparable to Romania or Bulgaria than Germany or France.

At risk of rehashing broken-record arguments for EU membership, it is worth instead setting one’s sights on the next 12 months, the critical window for securing a trade deal with the EU. To this end, a ‘thumping’ majority often heralds a theatric change of course for the new government it forms; think Blair’s ‘third way’ or the neoliberalism of Thatcher. Unlike Blair or Thatcher though, this direction had been foreshadowed in the ‘Johnsonism’ of the months prior to December 2019; a quite striking departure not only from his London mayoral stance, but also from his Notting hill set counterpart Cameron, toward policies poised further left economically yet more socially conservative — perhaps as an additional offering to his Brexit constituents. How this domestic orientation translates regarding Johnson’s future dealings with the EU is yet to be seen, however.

Meanwhile as the post-1973 UK-EU consensus lays in tatters, another union, this time dating back to 1707, is called into question. Those who rightly insist that the Conservative majority demonstrates, beyond reproach, the ‘will of the British people’ to leave the EU via the agreed timeline find themselves treading on increasingly delicate eggshells when asked what ‘mandate’ is implied by the Scottish National Party winning all but eleven of Scotland’s seats, for a total of 48. There is a certain cruel irony that Westminster now be so unified, whilst the bitter aftertaste of Brexit’s divisiveness lingers on in Scotland’s pleas for a second referendum of its own.

Never before in this Century has the world stage demanded so much introspection of the (dis)United Kingdom, and it will likely be the decisions that result which forge how the world stage, in turn, sees this country in the eighty years to come. If Johnson were to make a New Year’s Resolution, one would hope it involves a commitment not to repeat the missed deadlines and risks of a ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit witnessed in 2019. Que sera sera.

Cover photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA; in Guardian, 2019

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