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Anti-Brexit campaigners’ placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London. Anti-Brexit campaigners’ placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London, Jan. 28, 2019 (Photo by Kirsty O’Connor for EMPPL PA Wire via AP Images).

Boris Johnson Delivered Brexit, but Britain’s Future Remains Just as Uncertain

Friday, March 13, 2020

Three years after British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, Boris Johnson assumed the office of prime minister amid a political environment characterized by anger, turmoil and confusion. But despite initial stumbles that led some observers to predict he would suffer the same dismal fate as his predecessor, Theresa May, Johnson managed to deliver on his promise to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the European Union. His subsequent decisive victory in December’s parliamentary elections, built in part on successfully wooing traditional Labour party voters, gave Johnson the ample majority he needed to see his deal through.

Before Johnson’s December triumph, Brexit had been a disaster for both of the country’s two main political parties. The referendum outcome immediately brought down the Conservative government of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called for the vote in the first place. His successor, May, was felled by her inability to get the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Brussels through Parliament, mainly due to opposition by extremist Brexiteers within her own Tory ranks. For his part, Johnson achieved what May couldn’t, arriving at a Brexit deal that a majority of Parliament could agree on—and then building on that majority in December. But now he will own the consequences of having delivered Brexit.

The issue has been an unmitigated disaster for the opposition Labour party, which struggled under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn to find a winning position on Brexit. Support for Labour had already fallen since its better-than-expected finish in snap elections called by May in June 2017. But the December elections marked the party’s worst defeat in decades, in large part due to dissatisfaction with its lack of clarity on Brexit and also popular mistrust of Corbyn. Labour’s declining fortunes had opened up space for the singularly focused Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, who have called for Britain to remain in the EU. But both parties suffered in December’s parliamentary voting.

Despite Johnson’s victory, the U.K.’s future remains uncertain, and the lack of clarity has global implications. London will be eager to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals, beginning with the U.S., to make sure that vital exports are not interrupted. But its leverage to do so will be seriously diminished. Meanwhile, Johnson must now negotiate a permanent trading relationship with the EU before Dec. 31, 2020, a deadline that may reproduce all the brinksmanship of the past two years.

WPR has covered Brexit in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What kind of permanent relationship will Boris Johnson negotiate with the EU? Will even an amicable U.K. divorce from the EU further weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance? And what kind of global role will the U.K. have after Brexit? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

How Post-Brexit Britain Can Promote Better Trade and Development in Africa

The United Kingdom may have officially left the European Union, but the terms of its exit are still being worked out, including what British trade policy will look like post-Brexit. During the current transition, which lasts until at least the end of the year, the U.K. will continue trading under EU rules while negotiating new arrangements with Brussels. Once that is done, the British government will be free to negotiate new trade terms with the rest of the world. While a potential free trade deal with the U.S. gets all the attention, development advocates are watching to see how the U.K. adapts the existing preferential trade arrangements it had made as part of the EU with poor and developing countries, in Africa in particular.

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Domestic Politics

Brexit was a disaster for both the Conservative and Labour parties, in part because leadership on both sides was not up to the seriousness of the task, but also because of deep divisions within both parties on the issue itself. Over the past three years, Brexit became the new dividing line in British politics, superseding the previous left-right fault line of Tory versus Labour. Johnson’s recent election victory brought closure on whether or not Brexit will happen, but it won’t necessarily heal those divisions.

The Irish Backstop

The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland emerged as a key flashpoint in the Brexit negotiations. With both jurisdictions within the EU’s single market and customs union, there were no barriers to trade or movement. But negotiators were hamstrung over how to maintain that status quo after the U.K. withdraws from the EU. Johnson claims to have solved that problem, but others argue that the backstop question still threatens to reignite the decades-long conflict, known as The Troubles, pitting Catholic republicans against Protestant unionists.

The Difficulty of Delivering Brexit

During the referendum campaign in 2016, many pro-Brexit leaders downplayed the difficulties of actually delivering Brexit, from the Northern Ireland border to the economic consequences of leaving the EU, while exaggerating the ease with which the U.K. would negotiate follow-on trade deals. But perhaps nowhere was the absence of a realistic approach more painfully obvious than in the negotiations with Brussels that followed the referendum.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.