Voices: The A to Z of Brexit being done

One of my favourite cartoons is by Morten Morland from three years ago, depicting Boris Johnson with a live turkey, a Christmas tree wrapped in a net and a box of decorations, declaring: “It’s done! We got Christmas done!”

A month later, at the end of January 2020, the UK left the EU and in one sense Johnson did “Get Brexit Done”, his promise of the 2019 election. But in other senses, Brexit was not done at all. It got a bit more done on 1 January 2021, two years ago, when we came to the end of the transition period and finally left the EU single market.

Ever since then, Britain has been in a state of limbo, with Brexit both done and not done. We have left, but still haven’t put all our new customs procedures in place. We have imposed costs on ourselves, but failed to gain much from our new trade freedoms to compensate.

No sooner had we left than David Frost, Johnson’s chief negotiator, admitted that he and his boss had signed any old rubbish to get the deal through, and said he now wanted to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol to negotiate it again from the outside.

So yes, we got Brexit done: we damaged our trade with the EU, tying ourselves up in new red tape and customs declarations; we gave up our right to live and work elsewhere in the EU. But it is not yet done: the talks on the Northern Ireland protocol drag on, some border controls have been postponed until at least the end of 2023, and the majority of the British public now wants to rejoin the EU.

Here, then, is your guide to the A to Z of Brexit being done and not done, on the second anniversary of Britain leaving the single market.

A - Australia

Our new freedom outside the EU to sign free trade deals was supposed to be one of the economic benefits of Brexit. But the best we have got so far is “not actually a very good deal” with Australia and New Zealand, according to George Eustice, the former environment secretary, who helped to negotiate it.

B - Borders

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was minister for Brexit opportunities in April, announced a new borders strategy, which meant postponing controls that were planned for July and setting a target for “the end of 2023 as the revised introduction date for our controls regime”. The delay would save British businesses up to £1bn in annual costs, Rees-Mogg said, inviting the question: what is the point of these import controls?

C - Customs

Although the picture was initially confused by coronavirus, the effect on trade of leaving the single market two years ago was immediate and negative. It is now possible to quantify the damage. John Springford of the Centre for European Reform estimates that national income is 5.5 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been.

D - Jacques Delors

President of the EU Commission from 1985 to 1995, he did more to shape the European debate in British politics than he could ever have imagined. His plan for a single European currency rallied Tory Eurosceptics, while his vision of a social Europe helped turn Labour into a pro-EU party.

E - Europe

Britain is in Europe even though it is not a member of the EU. Recent academic work on the importance of proximity in trade underlines the point that the British economy will continue to be closely integrated with the EU single market whether we want it to be or not.

F - Free movement

Free movement of people throughout the EU was one of the main reasons given for voting to leave, because it meant that the UK could not choose for itself who should be allowed to work and live here. No sooner had free movement ended two years ago than some Leavers complained that they no longer had the automatic right to go to live in Spain if they wanted to.

G - Gibraltar

Another British territory with an EU land border awaiting agreement to finalise its relationship with the EU (see Northern Ireland, below). “Officials on all sides” are reported by Politico to be expecting a treaty to be signed “within the first few weeks of 2023”.

H - Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights is not an institution of the EU, but Conservative anti-EU sentiment is spreading to it, and if, as Suella Braverman, the home secretary, wants, the UK were to withdraw from it, it would complicate any future attempt to rejoin the EU, because the European Convention on Human Rights is closely interwoven with EU law. But see L.

I - Immigration

Although “taking back control” of immigration through a points-based system was a big attraction of Brexit, net immigration has gone up since we left. The most recent figures were distorted by arrivals from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan – all special cases – but even so, net immigration remains high, whereas for a lot of voters part of the point of taking back control was to reduce the total. Instead it seems that EU immigration has been replaced by non-EU immigration. Even so, attitudes to immigration seem to have become more positive.

J - Jobs

Leavers argued that Brexit would push up wages for lower-skilled jobs, while Remainers said the loss of trade would cost jobs. They were both wrong: labour shortages in some sectors, mostly caused by the aftershocks of coronavirus lockdowns, may have pushed wages up a bit, but there has been no general rebalancing of the pay of low-skilled workers.

K - Eva Kaili

The Greek MEP and former vice president of the European parliament has been arrested and charged with corruption. She denies taking large sums in banknotes, and the Qatari government denies trying to influence MEPs in the hope of favourable treatment in EU legislation. Innocent unless proven guilty and all that, but safe to mark this episode down as evidence for the case against EU democracy.

L - House of Lords

Some Conservative MPs, and some Conservative home secretaries, hanker after withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights. Whatever the arguments for or against, it is not going to happen. It would be blocked by the House of Lords.

M - Ministerial Cars

Will now be made in Germany, because Jaguar cannot meet the Metropolitan Police’s specifications.

N - Northern Ireland

“What struck me in the years that followed the referendum result was just the – it has to be said – extraordinary level of naivety and ignorance that most politicians had about what the options were. I think I was better informed than most at the time, but in terms of, for example, fully understanding how intractable Northern Ireland as an issue was going to be wasn’t apparent to me. To be fair, John Major and Tony Blair had said this is going to be a really big issue, but I don’t think that was ever really taken on board.” So said David Gauke, former chief secretary to the Treasury and justice secretary, speaking at King’s College London last month.

O - Brexit Opportunities

Jacob Rees-Mogg was briefly appointed “minister of”. He was reduced to issuing a public appeal asking anyone who could think of any to come forward.

P - Passports

We got our blue-black passports back. I prefer them, and symbols are important to people, but no one would claim they are that important.

Q - Qatar

See K.

R - Retained EU Law

Rishi Sunak was forced during the Conservative leadership election to promise to get rid of all EU law that has accumulated on the British statute books since 1973 by the end of 2023. There is a get-out clause that means some of it can be kept if ministers haven’t had a chance to decide if it needs to be replaced, but this row will run. Stella Creasy, chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, warns that good law will be junked without adequate parliamentary checks; Jacob Rees-Mogg warns: “We need to settle this by the 2023 deadline otherwise Labour will use this at the next election and create all sorts of stories about how we intend to scrap workplace rights and environmental regulations.”

S - Switzerland

Sources close to Jeremy Hunt set hares running in The Sunday Times by suggesting that a Swiss-style relationship with the EU might be the model for closer trading ties. The chancellor had just said, on the record: “I have great confidence that over the years ahead we will find, outside the single market, we are able to remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU.” But then he was forced to say that a Swiss-style arrangement of hundreds of separate deals plus being part of EU free movement was not right for Britain. So how can those trade barriers be removed?

T - Trade

The basic laws of economics dictate that trade is in the interest of both parties. If it is made more difficult, the benefits are reduced, and that reduction is greater in a smaller market that cuts itself off from a bigger market.

U - Ukip

The UK Independence Party, then the Brexit Party, now Reform UK: each of Nigel Farage’s political vehicles has briefly exerted huge influence on the House of Commons, despite only two former Conservative MPs briefly sitting for Ukip in it. Farage has ruled out an eighth attempt to become an MP, but Reform, his former party, is now level with the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. More unfinished business?

V - Vaccines

One of the few benefits of leaving the EU is that we were able to develop and deploy coronavirus vaccines faster than EU member states. This is fiercely disputed by many pro-EU opinionators, who argue that there was no legal obstacle to the UK going it alone, but my view is that there would have been political pressure for a common approach, which would have been hard to resist.

W - Withdrawal Agreement

If you know the difference between the withdrawal agreement, which includes the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, well done. That probably makes you better informed than most of the MPs who will decide our next post-Brexit steps.

X - Voting

My view is that 52 per cent of voters on a high turnout chose to leave the EU and were entitled to have those Xs on 17.4 million ballot papers respected, rather than being told patronisingly that they were swayed by lies, or that it is now obvious that the decision was wrong. “It is easy to conflate dissatisfaction with the realities of Brexit with an enthusiasm for unpicking it,” as Alex Massie wrote in The Times.

Y - Young People

People who were under the age of 45 at the time voted to Remain. That is, people who are under 51 now. In the future, Britain will have a closer relationship with the EU than we do now.

Z - Zero-Rated VAT

One of the teachable moments of the energy price crisis came when ministers – and Conservative leadership candidates – considered cutting VAT on gas and electricity bills as a way of helping customers with the cost of living. Until someone in the Treasury pointed out that this would not be possible in Northern Ireland, which is still for some purposes – including VAT harmonisation – part of the EU single market.