Britain is leaving the EU not with a bang but with a whimper

Years of rancour over UK’s exit from the bloc may not have been about Europe after all

When Britain leaves the European Union on Friday night, it will do so not in triumph or in sorrow but with a sense of weariness, all passion spent after years of rancour that put its political and constitutional system under almost unbearable strain.

The pro- and anti-Brexit protesters outside parliament have dwindled to a handful and only a couple of dozen MPs bothered to turn up on Thursday afternoon for a Commons debate about Global Britain.

Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe and the man who runs Wetherspoons will try to crank up the chauvinism at a rally in Parliament Square. But most prominent Brexiteers will mark the moment more discreetly, with Boris Johnson's message from Downing Street set to be one of national unity and reconciliation.

Remainers who warned since 2016 of the catastrophic consequences of Brexit and strained every sinew to thwart it just shrugged and walked away after last month’s general election, and nobody is talking about a campaign to rejoin the EU.


Watching them fold their tents with such insouciance, it seemed as if the culture war we have been through for the past three years might not really have been about Europe at all.

The vote for Brexit, which was opposed by all main party leaders, business groups and unions, delivered a massive shock to the political system that exposed the depth of divisions between England and the rest of the UK and between London and the rest of England. The implications of Brexit for the Border thrust Ireland into the centre of the negotiations with the EU and revealed much about how the British and the Irish see one another.

Irish confidence

At Westminster throughout the negotiations, I spent hours explaining to MPs and others why Dublin was unlikely to budge on the Border and why Brussels would not put pressure on it to do so. Many on the British side underestimated the confidence of today's Irish politicians and officials as well as the likelihood that the EU would side with a remaining member state against a departing one.

If much British commentary about Ireland was arrogant and ill-informed, it was matched by the exasperated condescension of many in Ireland towards Britain’s political difficulties over Brexit. Contrary to the hand-wringing speeches at British-Irish events these days, any damage to the relationship between Dublin and London is likely to be temporary.

If Britain showed its ignorance of Ireland during the Brexit negotiations, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asserted this week, it is much better informed now. And Ireland's tough and successful defence of its interests has been viewed in Whitehall with admiration as well as frustration.

In avoiding a hard Border between North and South, London and Dublin have agreed to put an economic border in the Irish Sea, against the will of most unionists in Northern Ireland. This arrangement creates a challenge for Dublin as it seeks to minimise trade friction between Britain and both parts of Ireland while remaining on the right side of the rest of the EU.

Johnson's 80-seat majority allows him to put into practice Vote Leave's programme for government, which involves an assault on Britain's institutions as well as an exit from Europe's. He has already embraced the kind of economic populism that has proved successful for right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, using state intervention to shift economic activity from the big cities to the towns and provinces.

People’s will

Johnson characterises his administration as “the people’s government”, warning other institutions such as the judiciary, the legislature and the media against interfering with his implementation of the people’s will.

As negotiations with the EU enter their next phase, Johnson wants Britain to stop talking about Brexit and an exhausted Britain is happy to oblige. But those negotiations will not be easy and there is no guarantee that the prime minister will secure a deal that protects the British economy, or that Global Britain will thrive outside the EU.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is demanding a second independence referendum and Johnson will come under huge pressure to agree to it if the SNP wins next year's Scottish parliament elections. Brexit strengthens the emotional case for separation but it complicates the economic argument, particularly if London pursues regulatory divergence from the EU.

Britain and the EU share an interest in agreeing a deal on their future partnership by the end of this year and there must be a chance that Johnson secures a satisfactory one. He must also have a chance of realising his ambition to make Britain a world leader in science and education and of striking trade deals around the world, while keeping the union together and “levelling up” between London and the rest of England.

But there must also be a chance that he will fail and that after his experiment with a hard Brexit, another government will negotiate a closer relationship with the EU. And who knows where that would end?