Britain's EU Journey: When Johnson gambled to deliver Brexit
LONDON – Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Difficult negotiations setting out the new relationship between Britain and its European neighbors will continue throughout 2020.
This series of stories chronicles Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe from the post-World War II years to the present.
When a tearful Theresa May announced in May 2019 that she would stand down as prime minister after failing to deliver Brexit on her timetable, there were real questions as to whether anyone actually could.
Brexit-backers in and out of Parliament were divided as to what Brexit actually meant. However, those backing a referendum on any Brexit deal agreed on with the EU — a so-called people’s vote that would have an option to remain in the EU — seemingly had the wind in their sails outside Parliament but struggled to find the numbers inside it.
Britain's scheduled departure from the EU had been delayed until Oct. 31, 2019, following Parliament's repeated failure to back May's Brexit deal with the EU.
That extension meant Britain had to participate in the elections to the European Parliament in May. The newly formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, who arguably did more than anyone else to deliver the vote to leave the EU in June 2016, topped the poll. Its message was uncompromising — get out as soon as possible with or without a deal. Close behind were the Liberal Democrats with their mantra “Bollocks to Brexit" — the widely held view of many of those who voted in the referendum to remain in the EU.
The country was all over the place on Brexit.
That was the backdrop that Boris Johnson inherited when he won the contest in July 2019 to succeed May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. His message to the 150,000 or so party members was that Brexit would happen on Oct. 31 come what may. For a party exhausted by Brexit, that stance offered a way out.
How would it be done though? No one quite knew, given the parliamentary arithmetic. He said he'd rather “die in a ditch" than ask for another delay but despite his opposition, lawmakers impelled him to ask for an extension to Jan. 31, 2020.
Anyone looking for calm after the chaos of May's years would have been seriously disappointed. An attempt by Johnson to shut down parliament was ruled unlawful. He lost vote after vote, fired a number of his own party's lawmakers for repeatedly voting against his government — yet managed, against all expectations, to negotiate his own Brexit deal with the EU.
An election was what he wanted though, and he eventually ground down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, to accede to one with his “chicken” jibes. Britain would have a general election on Dec. 12, its first December election for nearly a century. With Labour's Brexit policy unclear and Corbyn deeply unpopular, Johnson's Conservatives won their biggest majority since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
Johnson prevailed, not because he was popular, but largely because his message was clear. A vote for the Conservatives, he said, would “Get Brexit Done.”
Whatever the reality of that ambition, it resonated. Though more people voted for parties backing another referendum than those wanting to leave the EU, the vagaries of Britain's electoral system gave the Conservatives a thumping 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Johnson had the numbers to push his Brexit deal through. The drama and jeopardy of the past three years had gone and Brexit fell down the running order in news bulletins.
"At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we've done it," Johnson said when the Brexit deal finally became law last week.
Some will clearly rejoice at this imminent reality, but the failure of Brexit's most passionate believers to raise a half million pounds ($650,000) to get Big Ben's bell to bong at the anointed time of departure at 11 p.m. on Jan. 31 suggests there won't be too many street parties.
Now comes potentially the hard bit. Working out a new economic and security relationship with Europe while at the same time delivering on the many promises made during the 2016 referendum — from regaining sovereignty to extra funding for the National Health Service.
Whether the union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can survive the fallout when only the former two voted for Brexit in the referendum is another question for the future.
For now, Britain is on its own.
It is a land apart.
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