Why Boris Johnson will struggle to move on from Brexit in 2020

The ability of the government to keep its promises on tax and spend rests entirely on the UK’s final trading arrangements.

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2019 was the year in which Vince Cable became the most successful leader of the Liberal Democrats since David Lloyd George, and Jo Swinson became the first sitting leader to lose her seat since H.H. Asquith. It was the year in which Boris Johnson went from the backbench friend of the DUP to the Prime Minister who signed up to a Brexit deal that represents the biggest defeat for unionism since 1921. And it was the year that started with Jeremy Corbyn in touching distance of a hung parliament and ended with Labour's biggest defeat since 1935. 

Boris Johnson's Queen's Speech had a lot in it, some of it pretty good – the Domestic Abuse Bill is back, while measures to reform divorce proceedings will spare people a lot of unnecessary pain at an already painful time  but whose overarching message is: look how busy we are? See how we are keeping our promise to get Brexit done and focus on other things? 

Of course, the reality is that 2020 will be a year in which Brexit is the main event, policywise. The ability of the government to keep its promises on tax and spend entirely rests on the Brexit end state. But the promise that Downing Street thinks it has to keep is not about policy – but to get Brexit off the telly. As Arj Singh reveals in the HuffPo, that extends to banning the word itself from government communication. Will it work?

While the consequences of Brexit won't be off the news in 2020, the consequences of the financial crisis aren't either: but when Mark Carney announces that interest rates will remain at historically low levels, we no longer describe them as post-crisis monetary measures. They're just treated as monetary policy announcements.

A lot depends on what the next Labour leader decides their interests are. Is it for the government to be seen to have failed to keep its Brexit promises, or is it for the word Brexit to fade away – and for the focus to be on the consequences of the Brexit trade-offs, with the government blamed for them rather than the Leave vote?

Whatever happens, there will be trade-offs. Three years ago, the United Kingdom voted to put sovereignty ahead of prosperity. That's not an illegitimate choice but, as the debate over the Irish border showed, the freedom of Brexit is not absolute, anymore than the freedom of EU membership was. A post-Brexit Conservative government always had a binary choice of putting a regulatory border in the Irish Sea or a soft Brexit and after god knows how many parliamentary votes, 1,330 lost councillors, and the pound doing the helter-skelter, eventually they opted for the border in the sea.

Now we once again have a post-Brexit Conservative Party that has a choice between ambitious commitments on debt and spending and its preferred Brexit end state. Ambition in terms of reclaiming control, whether over immigration or any other area of regulation, has to be matched with reduced ambition in terms of spending and deficit reduction. It doesn't matter how big your majority is or how long your blogs are – that choice does not change. How that choice plays out and its consequences for the United Kingdom will shape 2020 just as the Irish border shaped 2019.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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