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31 January 2020

Why it’s too soon to predict the consequences of Brexit

Imagine if in 2005 you’d told Tony Blair and Gordon Brown what the political landscape would look like in 15 years.

By Stephen Bush

That is it, the end. The United Kingdom will leave the European Union tonight, kickstarting a year of negotiations over what will in reality be the first of many trade agreements we sign with the bloc.

That last part is something people seem to be forgetting in the rush to talk about what this faction or party got wrong in the first stage of the Brexit process. While Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, with its customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, allows a harder Brexit than the already fairly hard Brexit envisaged by Theresa May, just as the history of US-Canada and Australia-New Zealand relations is littered with trade agreements, large and small, the next chapter of EU-UK relations will proceed in a similar fashion.

The only significant thing in play over the last three years was whether or not Brexit happened. There’s an open argument about whether you think as I do that Labour would have been better off electorally had Jeremy Corbyn used his hegemonic position in the autumn of 2017 to explicitly commit his party to a concrete and final position on Brexit, but regardless: if you want a softer Brexit than the one currently on offer, you had to win an enduring majority for it, and still do. It wasn’t available via procedural tricks or backroom fudges from 2016 to 2019.

What will happen next? As I write in my column this week, the only thing we can safely predict is that we can’t predict how the United Kingdom’s Brexit tribes will shape politics in the next decade – only that they will.

Imagine if in 2005 – when an unpopular opposition leader’s array of popular policies wasn’t enough to prevent them going down to a thumping defeat to a polarising prime minister – you’d told Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that within 15 years, the people who had protested against the Iraq War would help put Nick Clegg into government and then help Jeremy Corbyn to become Labour leader and that partly as a consequence of those two decisions, Tony Blair’s seat would be held by a Tory while Brown’s would be held by the SNP. Neither of them would have believed you and no one could have predicted it at the time.

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So I would treat any prediction today – about either our inevitable return to the European Union or the certainty of our permanent exile from it – with an ocean’s worth of salt.

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