“Oh s**t, we’ve got no plan. We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy crap, what will we do?” According to Whitehall chroniclers Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell, that was how an “ashen-faced” Boris Johnson, attired in a “Brazilian football shirt and bottom-hugging shorts”, hailed the brave new world early on 24 June 2016 after the result of the Brexit referendum had been declared.
Fast forward to 11pm on Friday 31 January 2020, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland left the European Union. Johnson, by then prime minister, heralded “the dawn of a new era” featuring “a Britain that is simultaneously a great European power and truly global in our range and ambitions”. But now, four years on (and seven-and-a-half since the referendum), it’s time to be honest. Not just about the UK having irrevocably left the EU; but also that Brexit is still a slogan in search of a strategy.
This is clear from the rich material already available in books, journalism and documentaries. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, leaders of the triumphant Vote Leave coalition, assumed that Prime Minister David Cameron would, as promised, stay on to implement the people’s verdict. Hence their panic when he abruptly resigned. Initially it looked as if Johnson would take over as PM, with Gove as chancellor. But as we know, Gove stabbed Johnson in the “front”, declaring that he’d “come to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. Johnson then lost his nerve, Gove paid the price for his treachery and, out of the ensuing melee, Theresa May emerged as the leader anointed by the Tories to turn Britain into Brexitland.
May, who was home secretary, lacked substantive experience of foreign affairs or economic management. Most serious of all, note Seldon and Newell in their book May at 10 (2019), she “sailed into the negotiations not understanding clearly enough the historical context of the EU and European integration, nor the Good Friday Agreement and Irish border, nor what she sought from Brexit”. Those failings were shared, in varying degrees, by her predecessor and all her successors.
Given May’s lack of preparation, one might have expected her to take time to think and consult. Instead, she did exactly the opposite, guided by Nick Timothy – the Home Office special adviser who, with Fiona Hill, groomed her (and themselves) for power. Reading from a script drafted by Timothy, she told the Tory party conference on 2 October 2016 that the UK would invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union “no later” than the end of March 2017 – thereby beginning withdrawal negotiations which, under the treaty, had to be completed within two years. She also announced that Britain would not adopt some half-in, half-out relationship like those already agreed by Norway or Switzerland: “It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.”
The script came from Timothy but the sentiments were hers. May told advisers that, as the fifth-largest economy in the world, Britain did not have to take third-party options off the peg. “We will go for a bespoke, ambitious model designed around British interests and British needs.” (“Bespoke” became a Brexit cliché.) Sitting in the conference hall, Philip Hammond, May’s chancellor, tried to “keep a poker face” in front of the cameras, because “I could see immediately that we were boxing ourselves into the hardest possible Brexit corner. She hadn’t discussed it with me or, so far as I know, anyone else in the cabinet.”
As a former Remainer, May believed it was essential to show Leave voters that she was now one of them: hence her tautological mantra “Brexit means Brexit”. She also wanted to pre-empt calls from angry Remainers for a second referendum. The pull factor was a delusionary set of assumptions about the EU. Liam Fox – a fervent Brexiteer whom May put in charge of the new Department for International Trade – assured the BBC that reaching a free-trade agreement with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history” because “our rules and our laws are already exactly the same”.
This was nonsense. The UK would be negotiating not from within the EU club, but as an outsider seeking market access into what was now their market, governed by supranational laws and courts of which the UK would no longer be a part. The outcome was bound to be a less advantageous trading situation than before. Politically, Britain could no longer play its old game of EU à la carte. Brussels would set the menu, and also the prices.
From the very start the EU stated that there would be “no negotiation without notification” – in other words, no serious discussion until the UK had formally stated its intention to leave. Also ruled out were any bilateral deals between the British government and individual member states: the EU27 would act as a single unit through Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s authorised negotiator. The EU also insisted on treating its “four freedoms” – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – as an integrated package, rather than allowing London to cherry-pick those bits it liked. This meant that Leavers’ anti-immigrant mantra about “controlling our borders” could not be achieved without imperilling the “frictionless trade” that they also desired. As Stefaan De Rynck, Barnier’s senior adviser, observes in his revealing account Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done (2023), “the EU acted as a united club while Westminster tore itself apart”.
There’s no need to follow in detail what the journalist Tim Shipman called the ensuing “mayhem”. The botched election on 8 June 2017 was decisive. Instead of giving the PM more political room, it exposed her “Maybot” stiffness as a public performer, shredded her small majority of 17 and left her dependent on a “confidence and supply” deal with the ten MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). May’s authority never recovered. Over the next two years, she failed three times to get her withdrawal agreement through her party and parliament – humiliatingly having to ask the EU for an extension to the two-year negotiating period – before her resignation. A conscientious and considerate MP, she was not a PM.
Boris Johnson, her successor from 24 July 2019, finally got Britain out of the EU – but at enormous cost. Crucial to both was his double act with Dominic Cummings. Johnson was a charismatic barnstormer but, except in moments of crisis, he was indolent and indecisive. Three days before becoming PM he told Cummings: “The whole thing is a total mess. I don’t know what I’m doing. Someone needs to galvanise Brexit.” It was “Demonic Dom” who provided the ruthless organisational brain, telling No 10 staff: “We are leaving by any means necessary.” Another aide dubbed him Johnson’s “Rottweiler”.
“By any means necessary” included the notorious request that the Queen prorogue parliament in September 2019, which had the effect of closing down all debate for five key weeks. The prorogation, later judged illegal by the Supreme Court, stymied opposition MPs but also politicised Buckingham Palace in a way that was deeply resented. Cummings didn’t care. Nor was he bothered about the impact of Brexit on the rest of the UK, exclaiming on one occasion “I don’t care a f**k if Northern Ireland falls into the sea.” But Northern Ireland (where 56 per cent had voted Remain) was the only part of the UK that had a land border with the EU. And, after two decades of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, that once bloody border with the Irish Republic had become open and peaceful.
This Irish dimension was another blind spot in the mindset of most English Leavers. Belatedly waking up, May and Johnson diverged in their responses. Her proposed “backstop” had been designed to come into effect in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As summarised by the analyst Katy Hayward in The Irish Border (2021), the backstop would have kept the whole of the UK within “a single customs territory with the EU”, while requiring “regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU”. But hard Brexiteers insisted on the whole of the UK leaving the customs union.
In 2019 Johnson, by contrast, was ready to move the de facto customs boundary into the Irish Sea, so as to protect the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic while ensuring that Britain itself was fully outside the EU. In November 2018, however, he had flown to the DUP’s annual conference to assure cheering unionists that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement”. A year later, the DUP was furious at Johnson’s betrayal, but the PM bluffed it out, repeatedly denying what he had done. The Irish Sea border became another example of what Seldon and Newell call his “brazen disregard for honesty”.
The turn of 2019-20 was Johnson’s “Everest” moment. The general election he called on 12 December 2019 secured an 80-seat Tory majority – the party’s biggest since 1987. And on 31 January 2020, the UK’s departure from the EU enabled a jubilant Johnson to claim that he had “got Brexit done”. There was heady talk of a second term, even a third. But that soon evaporated. What followed was described by one Treasury mandarin as “an 80-seat majority looking for a purpose”.
The Covid pandemic, which hospitalised Johnson for a week, proved a huge diversion. But it was now clear that the feuding Tory factions could not agree what they wanted post-Brexit. And equally evident that the PM – deprived of Cummings by the increasing dominance of the third Mrs Johnson, Carrie Symonds – lacked the drive and focus to forge a policy or even keep order. Under Johnson, Brexit meant Breakout – and then Breakdown.
The coup de grace was his persistent and blatant disregard of No 10 staff breaking Covid rules that restricted partying during the pandemic. Despite the evidence, Johnson kept insisting that the guidance and the rules were “followed at all times”, but an inquiry by the Metropolitan Police found this statement to be untrue in relation to at least 126 incidents. Johnson lost the trust of much of his cabinet; after 62 Tory ministers and government appointees resigned, he finally bowed to the inevitable on 7 July 2022.
On the face of it, his successor, Liz Truss, had little to do with Brexit. With 49 days in No 10 she had the shortest premiership in British history. But the manic intensity with which she and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, set about their dash for growth typified the fevered atmosphere that her predecessors had fostered, especially the contempt towards civil service advice and also that Brexit signature motif of acting on impulse. The ensuing financial meltdown, according to the Resolution Foundation, cost the country around £30bn.
Rishi Sunak, the UK’s third premier of 2022, seemed more of a pragmatist. He tried to bring the warring tribes together in his new cabinet, preaching a stark message of “unite or die”. And although a staunch Brexiteer, he rebuilt bridges with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. Sunak’s “Windsor framework”, concluded in February 2023, established notional “green” and “red” lanes to ensure a lighter touch for goods from Britain that would stay in Northern Ireland, compared with the tighter controls and checks on goods intended for the Republic.
The Windsor framework reflected a very different tone from the confrontational approach of Johnson and his principal negotiator, David Frost – a former diplomat with big chips on his shoulders about the EU and the Foreign Office. And Johnson always enjoyed “Fourth Reich” digs about the EU. Instead, Sunak and his team went out of their way to get on with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission – finalising the framework at a hotel in Windsor Great Park, after which Von der Leyen, an Anglophile who had studied at the LSE, was invited to tea with King Charles at Windsor Castle.
Behind the cosmetics, however, there was no easing of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock. Power-sharing had operated in only two of the seven years since the Assembly elections of 2017 – causing huge damage to social services, democratic governance and public finance. The DUP kept insisting on its “seven tests” of the protocol. These were rooted in the Act of Union (1800), which made all parts of the new United Kingdom equal in matters of trade and therefore, the DUP insisted, ruled out any separate trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Despite more financial sweeteners and the possibility under the Windsor framework of a “Stormont brake” on some “significant” changes in EU rules if – and only if – the Assembly was back in session, the DUP held its ground. And from October 2024 “Not for EU” labelling on milk and dairy products will be extended from Northern Ireland to shops in England, Scotland and Wales – even though not required under the Windsor framework – apparently to placate unionists.
The only way for the tests to be met would be if either the EU or UK changed fundamentally its approach to Northern Ireland or Brexit, and that is not going to happen. Hence Sunak’s “patch and mend” strategy: improving working relations with the EU on a piecemeal basis while continuing to trumpet the virtues of Brexit and celebrate British exceptionalism.
Nor is there much sign of Johnson’s “sunlit uplands” for Britain outside EU “bondage”. In April 2022 he returned from a visit to India predicting a free-trade agreement before Diwali. But when the Hindu festival of lights began on 24 October, the treaty had not been concluded and Johnson and Truss were gone. Sunak, a practising Hindu, proved no more successful when in Delhi in September 2023. As the trade analyst Sam Lowe observes: “In the UK discourse, it is the big UK negotiating with little India. But India is on course to be one of the biggest economies in the world” and it “doesn’t feel the need to cut a deal”.
Similarly, the much-vaunted “special relationship” with the United States is yet to deliver a bonanza free-trade agreement. Just before Christmas 2023 the media was quietly informed that negotiations had been shelved until after the US presidential vote in November 2024. Sunak was left seeking “memorandums of understanding” with individual US states to reduce regulatory barriers and boost market access. Seven of these had been agreed by the end of November 2023, but none of them could reduce tariffs, which is the preserve of the federal government. As with India, so with the US: Brexit created new asymmetries of power. Britain had enjoyed greater leverage as a member of the second-largest economic bloc in the world than it could hope for as a lone ranger.
“Patch and mend” is proving very patchy. But it will be the only way forward for years to come. Even though trade with Europe has been falling, in 2020 the EU still accounted for 42 per cent of the UK’s exports of goods and services and 50 per cent of UK imports. In terms of people movement it’s also the UK’s most significant neighbour. That’s why we must keep on making piecemeal repairs to the EU-UK relationship, while accepting that Brexit is a fact of life. This means operating with an economy likely to be 3-5 per cent smaller than before we left the EU.
Whoever wins the next election, as the Financial Times journalist Peter Foster observes in What Went Wrong with Brexit (2023), “fixing Brexit” will not be primarily about Brexit, but about “putting the UK’s house in order” – an imperative from which Brexit has “proved a colossal distraction at a crucial juncture”. Critical areas include housing, education, skills and the development end of R&D. These issues cannot be addressed by the panicky short-termism of recent years, and require programmes that run for much longer than our five-year electoral cycles. Yet that would entail a level of cooperation between the political parties that is unimaginable. Foster argues that “as a midsize power with undoubted soft-power credentials, the UK can thrive as a global convenor of talent and enterprise” – but only if it can rebuild international trust.
A deeper realism is needed. Remoaners must stop hankering after the post-1973 narrative about “losing an empire and finding a role”. Europe was never a good fit because – thanks to imperial and wartime hangovers – we joined late, after key institutions and practices had set hard, and then spent 40 years as the “awkward partner” demanding opt-outs before we finally crashed out. The time for role-play has passed. And that applies even more to Brexiteer fantasies about picking up from where we were so rudely interrupted in 1973 – those Johnsonian fables about being “a great European power’’ and also “truly global in our range and ambition”.
Fixations with sovereignty and British exceptionalism need to be replaced by a recognition that, in the 21st century, we lack the power, position and wealth that we commanded when Britannia ruled the waves and waived the rules. Living in the age of Brexit will require honest strategy, not dishonest slogans.
David Reynolds is a New Statesman contributing author. His recent books include “Island Stories” and “Mirrors of Greatness” (both William Collins)
[See also: The Conservative art of war]
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars