Britain’s Uncertain Future After Brexit

Britain’s Uncertain Future After Brexit
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).

For years after British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, the country’s political environment was characterized by anger, turmoil and confusion. After a two-month period over the fall of 2022 that saw the country go through three prime ministers in two months, it seemed that the turmoil and confusion would remain, even if the anger has faded. Now Rishi Sunak, who found himself in the prime minister’s seat when the game of musical chairs ended, has reestablished a modicum of order. But he has so far struggled to address the country’s problems, many of them self-inflicted.

Until the recent upheaval in London, British politics had been dominated by the divisive debates over Brexit ever since the referendum. Theresa May’s initial failure to deliver a deal that was acceptable to the “hard Brexit” wing of the Conservative Party led to her resignation in 2019. Upon succeeding her, Boris Johnson managed to deliver on his promise to renegotiate the U.K.’s transitional withdrawal agreement with the European Union. His subsequent decisive victory in December 2019 parliamentary elections, built in part on successfully wooing traditional Labour Party voters, gave Johnson the ample majority he needed to see his deal through.

Just when the initial impact of that deal started to be felt, however, the coronavirus pandemic pushed Brexit to the backburner, while also disguising some of its economic consequences. Johnson was criticized for his handling of the pandemic, but ultimately benefited from his willingness to take risks when his quick action to secure vaccines paid off. After surviving multiple scandals over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he was finally brought down by yet another unrelated one in July 2022.

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What followed was unprecedented, in terms of the brevity of his successor’s time in office and the chaos it unleashed. After defeating Sunak in the Tory Party leadership contest, Liz Truss succeeded Johnson on Sept. 6, 2022. Days later, Queen Elizabeth II—the longest-reigning British monarch in history—died, putting Truss’ premiership on hold until the end of the 10-day official mourning period. Perhaps seeking to make up for lost time, Truss announced a proposed budget that, in drastically cutting taxes while increasing spending to subsidize spiking energy costs, threw bond and currency markets into turmoil. She quickly backtracked and tried to hold on, but the damage had been done. Truss resigned just 44 days after taking office, handing the premiership—and the country’s multiple challenges—over to Sunak.

The Tories’ chaos has been a boon for the opposition Labour Party, which had struggled under the leadership of Keir Starmer to inflict lasting damage on Johnson. Polls now suggest that elections would result in a Labour landslide victory of historic proportions if they were held today, but Sunak is unlikely to call for them until he has notched at least some successes on the economic front.

In the meantime, the U.K.’s future remains uncertain, and the lack of clarity has global implications. London was 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 has been seriously diminished. Meanwhile, the deal Johnson negotiated for a permanent trading relationship with the EU, which took effect Jan. 1, 2021, has proved to be as disruptive to the U.K.’s trade with its erstwhile EU partners as critics—and even some supporters—predicted. And beyond trade, questions remain over how much influence a “Global Britain” can really have in a world increasingly characterized by geopolitical competition among the great powers.

WPR has covered Brexit and U.K. politics in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What effect will the recent chaos in London have on the Tory party’s political fortunes? What will the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU look like? 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

Climate Measures Are Triggering Britain’s Radicalized Far Right

British media and policymakers paid only brief attention to a bombing in a South London suburb last week that in other contexts might have generated national panic. This remarkable lack of fuss was partly due to what the bomb had targeted: cameras enforcing an air-quality and climate initiative to discourage the use of older cars.

Domestic Politics and ‘Global Britain’

After the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, Brexit became the new dividing line in British politics, superseding the previous left-right fault line of Tory versus Labour. Johnson’s election victory in December 2019 brought closure on whether or not Brexit would happen, but it didn’t heal those divisions, which are now resurfacing as the actual impact of Brexit becomes clearer. Meanwhile, “Global Britain” has become the buzzword in London, but it offers little guidance for how to orient the U.K.’s foreign policy in a world increasingly characterized by geostrategic and geoeconomic competition—especially given the political upheaval in London since Johnson’s departure.

Delivering Brexit—and Living With It

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. Now that Brexit is officially in place, they are scrambling to deal with the predictable—and predicted—disruptions it is causing in trade, as well as political relations, with the EU.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

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, a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement that put an end to the decades-long conflict known as the Troubles. But negotiators were hamstrung over how to maintain that status quo after the U.K. withdrew from the EU. Johnson claimed to have solved that problem, but the practical impact of the so-called backstop—now that it is in effect—seems to be validating concerns that it could reignite the tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists that fueled the conflict.

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