Brexit without the drama

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
7 February, 2020

A wise man once said nothing is as old as yesterday’s newspaper. That would render Brexit, which went into effect last Friday, a piece of ancient history.

It is noticeable how quickly British newspapers moved on. Brexit has vacated the front pages to make room for the coronavirus, another London terror attack and more squabbles about the royal family.

Still, to paraphrase Churchill, Friday’s Brexit was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

The real work of sorting out Britain’s trade relations with the EU and the world has only just started.

The wider public will barely pay attention to these developments. They have zoned out. After three and a half years of Brexit drama, they want to read different stories.

And who could blame them? The intricate details of tariffs and quotas, most-favoured-nation status and WTO rules are complicated stuff. Unless chlorinated chicken is involved, trade matters aren't exactly dinner table debates.

The character of the new British Parliament, elected in mid-December, will also make it easier for people to forget about Brexit.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson not only won a large majority for his Conservative party, he also purged it of anyone who might disagree, let alone rebel, in Parliament. Neither he nor the public want to see any more of the backbench revolts that tormented his predecessor Theresa May.

And that leads to the third reason this next phase of Brexit will be quieter: Boris Johnson is not Theresa May. He has learnt from her mistakes.

May’s biggest foible was allowing two postponements of the Brexit deadline, weakening her negotiating position. It underlined to both friend and foe that she could be taken for a ride but not seriously.

Johnson, meanwhile, has made clear he will not extend the trade talks with the EU beyond December. His performance so far means he can credibly threaten to walk away because his party and Parliament will be behind him no matter what – a strategic luxury May never enjoyed.

That’s why I expect Brexit’s terminal phase, though more important than all the ones before, will flow much more smoothly and quietly. The public might barely understand, notice or even follow it anymore.

And perhaps, just perhaps, this will help bring about a good result. Here’s hoping.

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