What next for Brexit? One January vote, lengthy trade talks and a race against time

Samuel Lovett

With a Conservative majority emphatically secured and Labour’s resistance reduced to tatters, Boris Johnson now has all the tools at his disposal to "smash the roadblock", in his words, and take Britain out of the EU.

The prime minister, who finished with more than 43 per cent of the popular vote, has vowed to unite the country, spread opportunity and “get Brexit done” after his snap general election gamble paid off.

“We did it – we pulled it off, didn’t we? We broke the gridlock, we ended the deadlock, we smashed the roadblock,” said Mr Johnson during his victory speech in central London.

“In winning this election, we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before and people have always voted for other parties. Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not, let them down.”

So, with 365 seats to the Conservatives’ name and an historic 80-seat majority in the bag, what are the next steps for Brexit in the weeks and months ahead?

Brexit recap

After five weeks of intensive campaigning, during which we’ve seen shiny manifestos unveiled, politicians grilled on TV and one run-in with a milk fridge, it’s been easy to forget the Brexit gridlock which first sent British voters back to the polls for the third time in four years.

Indeed, Mr Johnson called the snap election to secure the majority needed to pass through his “oven-ready” deal, having been met with “unrelenting parliamentary obstructionism” – as he described it.

MPs initially voted to approve the prime minister’s Brexit agreement in October, but rejected his attempt to fast-track it through the Commons in order to hit the deadline at the end of the month.

In failing to push through his deal, Mr Johnson was subsequently forced to ask the EU to delay Brexit until 31 January – despite previously saying he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than request a new extension.

But with the required majority now to hand, the prime minister stands poised to win approval for the terms of departure agreed between his government and the 27 remaining member states of the EU.

Boris Johnson speaks from outside 10 Downing Street after being returned to power (REUTERS)

So, what next for Brexit?

The government is expected to re-introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the Commons next week, providing faithful voters with an “early Christmas present”. Realistically, this could mean MPs sitting on Friday for the bill’s first reading.

With a parliamentary recess set to be held over Christmas, as is tradition, MPs will then return in January to pass the bill – an all-but guaranteed outcome given the Conservatives’ majority.

The government will have a matter of weeks to finalise the legislation, tie up any loose threads and get the deal passed, at which point it will be presented to the European Parliament to be ratified. Then, on 31 January, Britain will finally leave the EU.

That’s that, right?

To put it simply: no. The next step for the prime minister will be to negotiate a trade deal with the EU – and the clock is already ticking.

The withdrawal agreement that Mr Johnson aims to implement next month involves the UK handing over a financial settlement of more than £30bn to Brussels and withdrawing from EU political structures, but does not guarantee the kind of trade deal that would avoid disruption to food and medicine imports, transport and the erection of tariff barriers.

With a final agreement deadline set for the end of the June 2020 – at which point the UK has to decide whether or not to extend the transition period, something Mr Johnson has ruled out – the Conservatives have a matter of months to secure favourable trading terms.

The EU’s director-general for trade, Sabine Weyand, previously warned that this timescale will only allow for a “bare bones” deal at best. If no trade deal has been agreed by the end of June, then the UK faces the prospect of a hard Brexit come December 2020.

The independent UK in a Changing Europe think tank warned earlier this month that leaving without a free trade agreement (FTA) at the end of 2020 could deliver a hit of between 3.2 to 4.5 per cent to GDP, cutting the government’s annual income by up to £28bn.

If an agreement is reached in time, it will then need to be ratified by the EU before coming into force. For a process that typically takes years to conclude from start to finish, the Tories have 11 months to engineer a favourable position for Britain as the country prepares to take the plunge.

Given the UK is already aligned to EU regulations and practices, Mr Johnson is confident negotiations should be a straightforward affair. But with the Tories eager to leave the customs union and single market, thereby granting the country the license to diverge from EU rules and form deals with other nations, critics are expecting tricky and testing times ahead.

So, anything else to consider?

You bet. The matter of trade is not the only thread that needs untangling. The Conservatives have made clear their desire to end the overall jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, while the question of how Britain will co-operate with the EU on security and law enforcement needs to be established.

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