(Bloomberg Opinion) — “I wish I could skip to the end of the book to know what happens,” a colleague said in passing, during one of those late evenings of drawn-out parliamentary debate that ended, like the bags of popcorn I consumed, without satisfaction. Now at least Part I of the Brexit saga has been written.
Like Brexit or lament it, there is a new degree of certainty: Britain is severing its 46-year link to the European Union. Parliament voted for that decisively on Friday. What the new relationship with Europe will look like is a subject for next year. But looking back on 2019, there’s a good case to be made that where we are is partly the result of three projects that failed and one that didn’t. Think of it as three funerals and a wedding.
The Independents came, saw and didn’t conquer. They were briefly called Labour’s Magnificent Seven, a group of defectors rejecting their party’s radicalism and hoping to form a new and more moderate alternative. Then they became eight and three Tories joined as well. But this breakaway ended like a previous one in 1981 — in failure. The group struggled from the start in deciding on a name, a leader and a platform. They never reached critical mass; they all lost their parliamentary seats or stood down.
I wrote at the time that “the split highlights Labour’s transition to a hard-left, take-it-or-leave-it socialist party from the inclusive, centrist ground it occupied under former leader Tony Blair. That is a place where many moderate voters won’t go and other Labour lawmakers may find increasingly intolerable.” The flood of resignations that briefly looked possible didn’t materialize. The Labour machine was too strong and many MPs thought that the party, based on its 2017 performance, still had game.
But the defections hurt Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. They underscored his lack of support in the parliamentary party, his unwillingness (or inability, if we’re being charitable) to tackle anti-Semitism and his incoherent Brexit policy. At the same time, they strengthened the hand of the Brexiters; only three Tory MPs joined the new grouping, which never gained traction with the public. It wasn’t going to pose a major threat.
The Remain alliance came undone. In mid-January, former Prime Minister Theresa May offered lawmakers a challenge: They were prepared to say what they didn’t want, she said. Now it was time to specify what they wanted. That became the leitmotif for the rest of the year.
Polls showed a small majority of voters would favor remaining in the EU if the Brexit vote were held again. But not even the parliamentary Remainers could agree on whether to hold a second referendum; many recoiled from the idea and with good reason. If Remain won, Brexiters would feel betrayed and consider it undemocratic. If Leave won, it would offer the worst kind of confirmation for many referendum proponents who were ardent Remainers. There would never be agreement on the all-important details either: What would the question be? How could the timing work?
The longer the Remain alliance’s indecision and division persisted, the less faith voters had that Parliament could offer any kind of solution. The deathblow came when Boris Johnson expelled 21 Conservative MPs for trying to block a no-deal exit. The orphaned group proved powerless; many of the big names left Parliament for good.
Theresa May’s deal died in a ditch. May’s time in office was characterized by her flaws as a politician — the inability to build alliances, to persuade — but also by the denial stage of Brexit. Neither Brexiters nor Remainers could accept that their preferred route would entail losses. Thus everyone hated May’s deal which, to borrow a phrase from the financial crisis, socialized the losses. Remainers would have to accept losing access to the EU’s single market, while Leavers would have to accept lingering obligations toward Europe to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
With the Brexit deadline looming, May tried a final gambit to break the impasse. She calculated that the opposition would avoid a no-deal exit and hardliners in her own party would intervene if they thought Brexit might be canceled altogether. She was both right and wrong. Although the opposition did avoid no-deal by forcing May to seek an extension, that didn’t get her agreement across the line. And while the hardliners did vote for a deal out of fear there might be no Brexit, in the end that wasn’t enough either; her deal was voted down a third and final time.
By the time Johnson became prime minister, Brexiters were willing to give ground in one crucial area. His deal established what was unthinkable under May: a de facto customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. There are some who argue that Johnson might’ve gotten his plan through from the start; I highly doubt it. Timing isn’t everything in politics, but sometimes it’s the only thing.
A new Conservative coalition is born. Now for the wedding. As the pollster and analyst Matt Singh has noted, the roots of the new Conservative majority have been growing for a while. But with uncommon charisma and personal branding, Johnson was able to cut through in a way May never could. His campaign was ruthlessly targeted toward exactly the voters he needed to win a majority. The Tories have always been good at reinventing themselves for electoral gain. This year, they did so yet again.
The first step was making Johnson leader. After he won the leadership contest, his success seemed likely to rest on three premises I described as “shaky” — and it turns out all three held up. The first was that Europe would renegotiate after repeatedly vowing not to. It did, and while Johnson had to sell out Northern Ireland’s unionists to secure the EU’s support for a new deal, he could nonetheless claim victory. Second, Johnson had to convince everyone that a no-deal threat was credible. He did. Finally, he had to sell a no-deal outcome to the public — in fact, polls were moving that way when Johnson clinched his agreement and made the point moot.
Johnson is unquestionably a defining figure. He has now won two mayoral campaigns, a Brexit referendum, a leadership contest, and a decisive majority in a general election; his political instincts and popular appeal can’t be doubted. Nor can his propensity to say anything that he feels will help his cause.
Now comes the hard part. For one thing, Johnson has repeatedly misled voters about the challenges and costs of Brexit, the promise of future trade agreements, and even the terms of his own deal. At some point, all that will come home to roost. He’s also borrowed from the populist playbook (at times shamefully, with digs at immigrants and prisoner rehabilitation), and won by attracting voters who will demand policies that many traditional Conservatives regard as profligate. He’ll have to deliver to keep them.
Looking back on some of the 100-plus Brexit-related columns I wrote in 2019, I found plenty of reminders that pundits don’t have crystal balls; that we sometimes mistake noise for signal, and the other way around.
I didn’t expect Johnson to emerge from a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in October having secured the outlines of a breakthrough deal, for instance. Johnson’s pivot after his fist-thumping no-deal rhetoric was a reminder of something we’d do well to bear in mind for 2020: He’s not tied to any one position or principle.
Then there were the moments that seemed significant but proved not to be. Supreme Court Justice Brenda Hale’s cool, eloquent rebuke of the government’s decision to prorogue Parliament in September captured the attention of the world. And yet, as with the carnival-like Brexit protests on the streets of London, it didn’t move policy much. Legal niceties aside, Johnson won that round handily within his party and in the court of public opinion. Now he’s launching a review of the role of the courts.
During the Tory leadership race, Rory Stewart had a brief moment of fame. He was Johnson’s opposite in many ways, as I wrote at the time. But he wasn’t a match for him politically, however much he won the race on Twitter. Nor was Jo Swinson the Liberal Democrat savior many had hoped when she emerged as the party’s new leader (here’s a catalog of what went wrong there).
At the start of 2019, on the other side of the world, the British tennis star Andy Murray tearfully announced he was stepping back from the game; hobbled by injury, he’d lost his crown as the world’s top player. I noted that his trajectory from triumphant 2016 Wimbledon champion to serial loser seemed to follow the arc of Britain’s own path since the Brexit vote.
Well, an update is required: Murray underwent major reconstructive surgery and following a “Rocky”-like rehab he is now the professional tour’s comeback player of the year. Boris Johnson would like that ending just fine.
To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at [email protected]
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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