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9 January 2020

Brexit is happening right now. Why aren’t we paying attention?

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill will complete its passage through the Commons today – what does that mean and why is it being sidelined in the media?

By George Grylls

Brexit is a process, not an event. How else can you explain the three and a half years of torturous wrangling that have dominated British politics since the 2016 EU referendum?

Within that process, there is an argument that the events of the past two days have been the most important milestones yet – perhaps not in the field of personality politics, but certainly when it comes to the dull, legal reality of Brexit. 

Yesterday the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) passed through its House of Commons committee stage unscathed, escaping undesirable amendments such as a pledge to continue the Erasmus scheme and a pledge to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with their families.

But distracted by the drama of Labour infighting, and bored by the certainty that whatever the government wants the government now gets, the media has largely begun the New Year by acceding to the Boris Johnson’s greatest desire – relegating Brexit to a wonkish side-story about trade policy.

Despite the fact this is essentially the same legislation as a few months before, there were only a handful of people in the Commons Press Gallery to watch the WAB perform its farewell tour. As such, the Conservatives are being allowed to frame the election as a cathartic moment for the country. The myth that Brexit has been “done” will seemingly prevail. 

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Today the WAB’s parliamentary passage will continue with a third reading in the Commons before it makes its merry way to the Lords. On 31 January, as the UK formally leaves the EU, the Brexit transition period will begin. But will the upcoming trade negotiations be covered in as much detail as the interminable WAB battles? Will Dominic Cummings’s promised Whitehall overhaul impact on parliament’s ability to scrutinise the trade negotiations?

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For all those tasked with keeping the negotiations honest – parliamentarians, journalists, civil servants, think-tankers – it will be tough, boring work, heavily reliant on dastardly experts. The question of whether or not pilots continue to follow European training guidelines under the Aviation Safety Agency is not exactly the sexiest story. Nevertheless, it is crucial business that Johnson would prefer to happen as the public, glazing over, look the other way.