Brexit crunch time is here – again

At the end of December the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal

Anti-Brexiteer activist Steve Bray holds placards and an EU-themed umbrella as he stands outside a conference centre in central London on December 4, 2020, as talks continue on a trade deal between the EU and the UK. With just a month until Britain's post-Brexit future begins and trade talks with the European Union still deadlocked, the UK government on Tuesday urged firms to prepare as it scrambles to finish essential infrastructure. / AFP / Tolga Akmen
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Steve Bray is a persistent campaigner. Dressed in the British flag with European Union colours on his big hat, he stands outside the British parliament bellowing through a megaphone.

He has been demonstrating against Brexit for more than three years, irritating politicians and becoming a tourist attraction, because as he puts it “the future of the United Kingdom is at stake”.

This week is – yet again – supposed to be Brexit crunch time, deciding whether at the end of December the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal.

Whatever happens, Mr Bray says his protests will continue until the UK actually rejoins the European Union.

Even for those British voters who deeply regret Brexit and wish to remain, Mr Bray’s determination may seem admirable yet pointless, a lost cause. But it is clear that British public opinion against Brexit has hardened.

The latest YouGov poll a few days ago showed 50 per cent of British voters now think Brexit is wrong, 38 per cent right, with 12 per cent undecided.

Opinions have changed and so has the economic situation. Due to Covid-19 Britain faces the worst economic contraction since the Great Frost of 1709, when the UK was also at war with France.

World politics have changed too, with the election victory of US President-elect Joe Biden. And political promises have changed.

A year ago British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won an election with the false claim that he had “an oven-ready (Brexit) deal.”

The UK's chief Brexit negotiator, Lord David Frost, arrives at St Pancras station in London before traveling to Brussels for talks with the EU in an attepmt to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, Sunday Dec. 6, 2020. The European Union and the United Kingdom have decided to press on with negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with all three key issues still unresolved ahead of a year-end cutoff. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)
The UK's chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, arrives at St Pancras station in London before traveling to Brussels for talks with the EU in an attempt to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, December 6. AP

If Mr Johnson does secure a deal it will be the last gasp of highly complex negotiations. Things are so bad the Johnson government is even planning a military airlift to bring in coronavirus vaccines in case of predicted massive disruption at British ports.

Back in 2016 some British politicians thought Brexit would be a wonderful wheeze

For more than four years, most economists have been clear that any version of Brexit will inevitably make the UK poorer than staying in the EU. At best it will create a massive amount of new bureaucracy and form-filling. But Mr Johnson is not the only one facing crunch time.

Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, needs to decide whether to vote in favour of any deal, oppose it or abstain.

Mr Starmer is reported to be arguing for accepting that a deal is better than nothing and that fighting Brexit is a lost cause. But Labour’s former leader Neil, now Lord, Kinnock, is urging abstention.

Lord Kinnock argues the Conservative government must “own” Brexit and that it will seriously damage them. If Labour abstains, they will be able to blame the Conservative party for for every traffic jam of lorries at Dover, every delayed flight, every long queue at passport control, every delay in bringing pharmaceuticals or fresh vegetables and even the likely shortages of EU-trained medical staff, vets and seasonal labourers on British farms.

And even if some form of Brexit is now inevitable, whatever happens over the next few weeks, Brexit will not be “done.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: A queue forms outside a Covid-19 testing centre in a temporary structure at Kings College in England on December 7, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. London is currently in tier two Covid-19 restrictions were residents can socialise with anyone they live with or who is in their support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place. Outdoors they must observe the rule of six. Pubs and bars must close, unless operating as restaurants. Hospitality venues can only serve alcohol with substantial meals and must close between 11pm and 5am with last orders called at 10pm. Organised indoor sport, physical activity and exercise classes will be permitted if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with. Schools remain open. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
A Covid-19 testing centre in a temporary structure at Kings College, London, December 7. Getty

The business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, is extremely concerned by the prospect of long-lasting disruption. Its director general Josh Hardie believes that even with a deal, no end is in sight.

He advises that “once the free trade agreement is over the line, don’t breathe a sigh of relief and down your pens. Actually move on to the next thing, because this has some way to go”. Form-filling, paperwork and bureaucratic problems will not end with a deal; they will begin in earnest.

As Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, argued in his 2019 book 9 Lessons in Brexit, Brexit cannot be an event when it is a process that will take years. He ended his book by telling politicians: “It’s time to wake up from the dream and face the facts.” Yet that is the problem.

Some Brexit supporters even now are living in dreamland, but part of their dreams will die with every every bureaucratic hurdle that has to be cleared, every truckload of fresh food stuck at a port, every time a British tourist is forced to join the long “Non-EU Citizen” queues at an airport.

It is as if Brexit is politics for slow learners. Two Brexit-supporting newspapers recently reported the “fury” of Britons owning second homes in Spain, France and elsewhere.

They have just realised that ending EU freedom of movement will mean big changes to their lives.

But Remain supporters also face some uncomfortable facts. Should they accept defeat and “get over it”, as Leave supporters demand? Should they fight on like Steve Bray?

David Edgerton, a leading English historian, recently suggested that Brexit is the biggest British political gamble since the Suez fiasco.

Back in 1956, British politicians thought it was a good idea to seize the Suez canal by force. Most of the rest of world, the Arab world and especially the United States thought it was a post-imperial catastrophe.

Back in 2016 some British politicians thought Brexit would be a similarly wonderful wheeze. Mostly around the world, and especially within the new Biden administration, Brexit is seen as evidence that the British ruling classes obviously had it wrong.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National