Brexit after Boris

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the promise that Brexit would bring prosperity and pride. He did it? Here’s everything you need to know:

How did Brexit come about?

The United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum after a bitter campaign filled with misinformation and racism. The main cheerleader for the Leave camp was Boris Johnson, who loudly, repeatedly and falsely claimed that Britain was sending £350 million to the EU every week. Brexit, he said, would give Britons their money back – as well as allow them to set their own immigration policy so they don’t have to take in so many asylum seekers or migrants from the EU. After negotiations with the EU on With the terms of the withdrawal lasting years, Johnson resoundingly won the prime ministership in 2019 on a pledge to “get Brexit done”. Now he is leaving 10 Downing Street in a cloud of lies and scandal, and while Brexit is done, few are happy with the outcome. Britain’s GDP per head has risen by just 3.8 per cent since the referendum, while the EU’s has jumped by 8.5 per cent. Companies are struggling to hire skilled workers and trade with Europe has plummeted. “If you can’t send your products to the biggest market on your doorstep,” said Gyr King, chief executive of King & McGaw, a printing company, “you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

What was Brexit supposed to bring?

Making his case for Brexit The Telegraph before the referendum, Johnson focused mainly on sovereignty issues, saying that up to 60 percent of new British legislation was written in Brussels and that Britons should take their country back. He was long on rousing rhetoric and unconcerned with economic specifics. Other prominent Brexiteers, such as then Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, championed the vision of the UK as a Singapore on the Thames, a low-tax, low-regulation haven that would thrive by attracting international business. The UK, these supporters said, would strike its own, more favorable trade deals with the US and other countries.

How much of that happened?

Not much. Yes, the British are no longer bound by EU law. But the Brexit deal that Johnson reluctantly supported tied British regulatory policy closely to that of Europe (because otherwise the EU wouldn’t buy British products) and created costly red tape. In one of the UK’s four constituent countries, Northern Ireland, EU law still largely prevails because the EU has refused to jeopardize Irish peace by establishing a hard border on the island of Ireland. Instead, there is a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, a rift that angers many Northern Irish people. And as Johnson continues to try to rewrite this provision of the Brexit deal, the US – which had spearheaded the drafting of the Irish peace deals – has refused to sign a major trade deal with the UK

How is Britain’s economy?

It is not in good condition. Immediately after the referendum, the pound fell 10 percent and has not recovered. This pushed up import prices and delivered what the Center for Economic Policy Research called “a rapid negative shock to UK living standards”. Things got worse when the UK left the European single market in December 2020, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The flow of goods roared due to the loss of European truck drivers, and manufacturing took a hit as companies were shut out of EU supply chains. Just a decade ago, the average Briton was about as rich as the average German. now that the Briton is 15 percent poorer than the German. Brexit Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg was recently ridiculed when, when asked to name the economic benefits of Brexit, he resorted to avoiding a 2% rise in the price of fish sticks.

Surely there were other pluses?

Britain has effectively taken back control of its immigration policy and no longer pays contributions to the EU. Some argue that immigration is now fairer, as EU members are no longer automatically favoured—although immigration rates have remained stable, rather than falling as promised. The UK has also adopted stronger policies than the EU on animal welfare, an issue dear to the British heart, and has banned the export of live farm animals. More broadly, Brexit had a significant psychological effect, restoring a sense of proud independence to a nation that never got over the loss of its empire. But this renewed English patriotism has a dark side: the Brexit campaign demonized immigrants and hate crimes have more than doubled since 2015. In a recent poll, just 17 percent of Britons said Brexit had changed their lives better.

How will Johnson’s departure affect Brexit?

The Conservative Party’s race to replace Johnson as prime minister, pitting Foreign Secretary Liz Truss against former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, has taken shape as an ideological battle over Britain’s post-EU future. It has become Tory orthodoxy to show no regrets about Brexit, and Truss, the favourite, booed for voting Remain. But he now backs the Singapore-on-Thames option, saying it would cut regulation. Sunak, instead, would spend on social services and raise taxes on corporations. Meanwhile, -the opposition Labor Party under Keir Starmer has adopted the new slogan “Make Brexit Work”, pledging to make the most of what it calls a “bad deal” if it takes power. Other key Labor figures, however, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, want the UK to return to the European single market. Brexit, Khan said, is “the biggest self-harm ever done to a country”.

A divided kingdom

Brexit has weakened the bonds between the four countries of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The new customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is a symbolic break between Belfast and London, and there is now talk among Northern Irish nationalists of holding a long-term referendum to leave the UK for unification with Ireland. Scotland is even more likely to hold an independence vote. Most Scots, 62 percent, voted to remain in the EU and many want to rejoin. While Scottish voters rejected independence in 2014, in a poll last year more than half said they wanted a new referendum. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is currently fighting in court to give them one. “Scottish democracy,” he said, “will not be imprisoned.”

This article was first published in its latest issue The week magazine. If you want to read more like this, you can try six issues of the magazine risk-free here

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