British Politics and Brexit 101: A Country in Crisis - The Future
The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership ended with the shock decision to exit the EU and started the leaving process that has come to be known as Brexit. After over 40 years of membership and integration, this decision has had profound effects not just in terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the wider world, but also within British politics and society. The referendum results exposed deep fissures within the United Kingdom and led to profound political realignments, with the Brexit issue likely to shape Britain for decades to come. Once considered a bastion of stability, Brexit has instead illustrated the United Kingdom as a nation in flux and undergoing a deep crisis of politics and identity. This 101 series will first investigate the reasons behind the decision to leave the European Union, before analysing the effects that Brexit has had on British domestic politics. British Politics and Brexit 101 is divided into six different chapters:
British Politics and Brexit 101: Before the Referendum – A Public Wedded to Brexit?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Referendum Campaign – A Question of Europe?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Fallout – Britain Divided
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Disunited Kingdom – Brexit and the Nations
British Politics and Brexit 101: A Country in Crisis – The Future
Three and a half years after the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson had finally “Got Brexit Done”. Britain formally left the European Union at 23:00 GMT on 31st January 2020. Yet, despite the wishes of the Brexit-fatigued British public, the Withdrawal Agreement resulting from two and half years of EU negotiations marked not the end, but merely the end of the beginning. Many questions on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, along with Britain’s future relationship with the wider world and indeed Britain’s relationship with itself, remained woefully unanswered. To lead Britain into this brave new post-Brexit world was Boris Johnson’s populist Brexit Tory regime, appealing to what it felt were the general wishes of the Brexit voting public on issues such as immigration and regional inequality. Until this point, the aim of getting Brexit done had been one of the few things holding the many competing factions of the Conservative Party together. With this goal achieved, the next two and a half years in Britain would be marked by crisis and scandal, some of which were global in nature — not least the Covid pandemic — but all of them exasperated by inadequate governance and the meeting of fanciful Brexit promises with concrete reality.
This article will first outline the nature of Britain’s populist Johnson-led Conservative government to show how the party’s Eurosceptic wing was split into ideological and practical outlooks. Whilst Johnson represented Brexit opportunism and populism as a reflection of the popular Brexit vote, his cabinet was filled with many ideologically committed libertarian Tories — who had been Euroscepticism’s chief political driver through the decades and had long sort to transform Britain into a low-tax and low-regulation economy. The article will then investigate the British government’s response to the Covid crisis to show how it was mired in inaction and scandal, but which nevertheless helped to disguise some of the ill economic effects of Brexit. Next, the article will investigate the ever-present difficulty of Northern Ireland, which witnessed Unionist fury and a resumption of violence, with Johnson threatening to break international law by violating his own Withdrawal Agreement in response. Finally, the article will investigate the downfall of Johnson and the transition to the very short-lived albeit catastrophic Premiership of Liz Truss, after the Conservative libertarian wing finally managed to play out their decades-old free-market ambitions.
The New Tory Party: Johnson’s Brexiters
With Theresa May having fallen from power, and with the moderates of the Conservative Party having largely exited or been side-lined, the Tories were now dominated by politicians who had been pushing hard-line Brexit politics. However, this Brexit wing was itself split between two broad ideological factions that nevertheless experienced some crossover. The first faction consisted of ideologically driven libertarians who had been agitating against the EU for many decades. This was based on ambitions to turn Britain into a low-tax and low-regulation economy (Hayton, 2021). This wing frequently attacked so-called Brussels “red tape” on issues such as consumer standards and workers’ protections, believing these to be shackles on economic growth (Hayton, 2021). Nevertheless, this zealous ideological outlook was always a niche political concern and never likely to win popular support. The second faction of Brexiters represented the populist nationalists who sought to appeal to the perceived wishes of the general Brexit-voting public themselves, including voters of UKIP and the Brexit Party (Evans et al., 2021). This included strong anti-immigration rhetoric and emphasised culture war issues, but also appealed to decades-long economic grievances.
Johnson was able to straddle this divide and unify the factions with his popular appeal. Faith in UK politics was at an all-time low in 2019 after years of Parliamentary Brexit deadlock, with 75% in a 2019 poll indicating they felt the UK needed to change its democratic system, and nearly 50% feeling they had no influence whatsoever in political decision making (Senior et al., 2021). Despite being an Eton-educated member of the country’s ruling class and an active Conservative politician for the preceding ten years of government, Johnson was able to successfully play on these sentiments of disillusionment by portraying himself as an unconventional outsider who could challenge the political orthodoxy (Senior et al., 2021). Johnson had also hired Dominic Cummings — who had led the Vote Leave campaign — as his advisor. Cummings saw in the disruption of Brexit the possibility of dramatically remodelling the British state and civil service into a nimbler and more modernising entity, thus showing some reformist intent of the Johnson government (Morgan, 2018). Simultaneously, by helping to secure a Hard Brexit outcome, the libertarian wing saw in Johnson’s populism a route to enacting their own ideological ambitions (Hayton, 2021). Johnson’s cabinet of Brexiters thus came from both factions and included competing interests. Ministers were promoted primarily on their loyalty to Johnson’s Prime Ministership, rather than governmental experience.
Of particular importance to Johnson was rewarding the influx of Northern Tory MPs from the Red Wall constituencies which had voted Conservative. Consequently, with Brexit done, Johnson’s other big policy platform was his so-called “Levelling Up” agenda, which sought to heal some of the United Kingdom's vast regional wealth disparities, including through greater public investment (Hayton, 2021). This seemed to signal an end to ten years of crippling Conservative austerity policies. Yet, for this Levelling Up agenda to work, the Conservatives would first need to contend with Britain’s creaking public services which they had themselves actively defunded. Brexit had further exasperated the pressure on services even before 31st January 2020, in particular the NHS and social care, as European migrants who formed substantial portions of the workforce had either left the country or been dissuaded from arriving (Lee et al., 2021). Nevertheless, with the most pessimistic of the post-Brexit prophecies not coming to pass immediately upon leaving the European Union, the Brexit cause was boosted in the minds of its supporters, who could claim the Remain campaigns Project Fear was exaggerated (Hayton, 2021).
The Labour Party for its part had seen Jeremy Corbyn stand down after the disastrous 2019 election, with the new leader Keir Starmer — who had served as Corbyn´s Shadow Brexit Secretary — elected by the membership after decisively beating Corbyn´s successor candidate (Hayton, 2021). Starmer hailed from the Soft Left of the party and hoped to appeal once again to a wider swathe of the electorate whilst simultaneously bringing some degree of party unity after years of bitter factionalism. Whilst Corbyn´s leadership had become known for animated political rallies and an energised youth, Starmer instead sought to impart a managerial and professional demeanour as a counterpoint to Boris Johnson´s unserious attitude and years of Conservative instability and Brexit populism (Hayton, 2021). Yet before these new post-Brexit political dynamics could play out, the world spiralled into crisis as a deadly new pandemic started sweeping the globe.
Britain and Covid Crisis
Just as Britain exited the European Union, growing reports emerged from China of a deadly new virus. Before long the virus had spread. By March 2020 country after country in Europe had locked down their borders as the mysterious Covid-19 virus began claiming lives. Post-Brexit British politics had implications on the pandemic in several ways, resulting from a mixture of a decade of austerity and Brexit itself, along with the dynamics of the Johnson government. The first issue was the United Kingdom’s slower decision than other European countries to impose a lockdown (Lee et al., 2021). This was in part due to the Johnson government’s libertarian tendencies and belief that lockdown laws were draconian and at odds with British democratic traditions (Newton, 2020). However, it also transpired that Johnson had missed the first five emergency meetings called by his government’s SAGE scientific advisors on the emerging Covid crisis, suggesting inaction and a failure of judgement over a libertarian mindset (Newton, 2020). Even more damningly, Dominic Cummings also later claimed that the British government took an early decision to pursue a herd-immunity strategy by mitigating rather than trying to prevent the spread of the virus, despite the novelty and complete lack of scientific knowledge on the nature of the virus (HSCCSTC, 2021). Furthermore, Johnson’s government was also reported to be in regular conflict with its own SAGE scientific advisors, failing to decide on a singular strategy between zero-covid, suppression or mitigation (Lee et al., 2021).
Yet, as the death toll mounted, the calls continued to grow for the British government to act and it was finally forced to announce national restrictions around ten days after other large European nations (Lee et al., 2021). This set a regular pattern throughout the pandemic of unwillingness to impose harsher lockdown measures and other restrictions, such as the enforcement of mask-wearing (Lee et al., 2021). The second issue was that the Covid stresses on the National Health Service were greatly exasperated by the preceding ten years of real terms spending cuts, including a 40% cut in the operational budget between 2013 and 2019 (Lee et al., 2021). This is illustrated by the government carrying out a coronavirus-pandemic exercise in 2016 that indicated substantial failures in the health response. However, the recommended measures resulting from this exercise had not been implemented because of budget cuts and health-crisis planning switching to preparation for Brexit (Lee et al., 2021).
Despite these early confusions, distrust in the government had recovered somewhat during the start of the pandemic from its low 2019 levels as the country rallied to respond to the threat, and Johnson himself entered intensive care with Covid generating national sympathy (Davies et al., 2021). However, the indecisive government response and mixed government messaging were worsened by a series of political scandals, particularly when it emerged that Dominic Cummings had made serious breaches of lockdown regulations in May 2020 just as the number of deaths topped 40,000 (Newton, 2020). Following this incident, the levels of distrust in government once again experienced a sharp increase to 65% by the end of May (Davies et al., 2021). This loss of trust was subsequently shown to decrease people’s willingness to abide by government advice or restrictions (Fancourt et al., 2020). Although the variation in international reporting and statistics for Covid deaths remain disputed, Britain has self-reported the highest European death toll for Covid outside of Russia, with over 200,000 dead by 2022.
Despite the government’s poor record during the first year, by 2021 the UK was able to put out the fastest vaccine programme in Europe along with one of the most extensive testing regimes (Caliendo, 2022). The British government actively sought to emphasise the pace of this vaccine rollout in comparison to EU states as a vindication of Brexit, allowing the UK to act in a more nimble and flexible manner than the joint-EU vaccine rollout (Caliendo, 2022). Furthermore, the speed of development of the “British” Astra-Zeneca vaccine allowed Brexiters to claim Britain could still be a world leader in science post-Brexit (Caliendo, 2022). Caliendo (2022, p. 5) argues this “vaccine nationalism” was met by the EU’s decision to try and destroy confidence in the “British vaccine” — which thus marked an escalation of adversarial vaccine diplomacy that further played into Brexit narratives. Just as importantly, the seismic economic shocks of the Covid-pandemic also allowed the British government to blame any ill economic effects on Covid and not Brexit (Caliendo, 2022). As the vaccines began to take effect and life started to resemble a much greater degree of normality as 2021 progressed, the Johnson government was looking to have survived its handling of Covid whilst simultaneously boosting its claims of Brexit benefits. Nevertheless, as shall be seen later, the emergence of further scandals involving Boris Johnson during the Covid period ultimately proved fatal to his Prime Ministership. Meanwhile, as the world emerged from Covid, another issue that had dogged Brexit from the beginning once again entered the spotlight, that of Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Protocol and Loyalist Fury
In a sign that Boris Johnson’s populist government was willing to sacrifice the ties of the United Kingdom in pursuit of a Hard Brexit and the English nationalist vote, his renegotiation of May’s Withdrawal Agreement included a concession that was never going to be acceptable to Northern Irish Unionists. Known as the Northern Irish Protocol, this concession allowed the rest of the UK to exit joint customs arrangements with the EU, but with Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs union to avoid customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Instead, customs checks would occur on goods going from the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland, with a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). This was quickly met by Unionist outrage. On a practical level, Northern Ireland imported £13.2 worth of goods and services from the UK, which would now be subject to additional paperwork and EU tariffs and checks (NISRA, 2022). However, and more importantly, on a psychological level this represented the weakening of the ties between Northern Ireland and the UK with Northern Ireland remaining partly within EU jurisdiction, in contrast to Irish Nationalists who still had a seamless border with the rest of Ireland as a concession to Irish unity (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). In response, Johnson’s government guaranteed Northern Irish Unionists that there would be no need for customs checks with the UK, without it being clear how he would live up to this new Brexit promise. The arrival Covid meant this issue was temporarily side-lined whilst national efforts focused on the pandemic.
However, as the first Covid wave subsided, Johnson now sought to appease Northern Irish Unionists by reneging on the very same Withdrawal Agreement that he himself had negotiated and signed off less than one year earlier, and was now written into international law. The British government drafted new legislation in September 2020 that would allow UK-Northern Ireland trade without customs checks, in direct violation of the international UK-EU treaty (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). The EU in turn announced its intention to take the issue to international courts before the UK government agreed to remove the offending articles of the legislation in December (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). Instead, just three months later in March 2021, the British government announced a new violation of the Withdrawal Agreement, stating it would unilaterally extend the Withdrawal Agreement’s grace period on customs checks with Northern Ireland (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). The EU again responded by threatening to bring the issue to international legal courts, with this issue still in the balance (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). With Britain’s domestic Parliamentary constitutional restraints having been seriously damaged by Brexit, Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit government was now damaging the UK’s reputation for upholding international agreements (Hayward & Komarova, 2022).
For the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party — Brexit now appeared to have been a spectacular own goal. They first supported Brexit in the hope it would bind the UK closer together, and place barriers to Irish unification (Mars et al., 2018). They were then sprung into a position of unprecedented power as Theresa May depended on their votes for her Brexit negotiations, with the DUP agreeing with her negotiating red lines (Mars et al., 2018). However, the DUP subsequently rejected May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which would have kept the whole of the UK in an indefinite customs union with the EU to allow cross-border Irish trade, thereby preventing a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This paved the way for Johnson’s renegotiation which implemented the de facto border, marking a far worse outcome for Unionists.
The seriousness of the issue was starkly illustrated as Unionists took to the streets in March 2021 to demand an end to the Northern Irish protocol. Loyalist estates across the country soon descended into ten days of rioting and violence, including most ominously intercommunal violence between Loyalist and Republican youths in a disturbing echo of Northern Ireland’s troubled past (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). This represented the largest civil disturbances in Northern Ireland for a decade, and once again reminded the world of the region’s potential for violence. Since its January 2017 suspension, the Northern Irish Assembly again resumed in January 2020 as the DUP and Sinn Féin made a new power-sharing arrangement. However, now the DUP — in attempting to win back support from Loyalists — once again collapsed the power-sharing arrangement in February 2021, by refusing to resume governance with Sinn Féin for as long as the Northern Ireland protocol was still in force (Hayward & Komarova, 2022).
This precipitated a new Northern Irish Assembly election in May 2022, marking yet another monumental setback for the DUP and another huge realignment within British politics. Sinn Féin — the party that was once synonymous with the IRA — became the first Irish nationalist party to win the most seats in a Northern Irish election, with 29% of the vote (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). This marked a historical and highly symbolic victory for the cause of Irish nationalism. The DUP, in turn, was relegated to second place for the first time since 2003, with 21% of the vote. Many moderate Unionist votes instead went to the avowedly cross-community and anti-sectarian Alliance Party, which for the first time became the third-largest party with 13.5% of the vote (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). Meanwhile, many Loyalist votes went to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) as an emerging hard-line Unionist party to challenge the DUP (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). This represented the splintering of the Unionist vote and the DUP’s alienation of both moderate and hard-line Unionists.
In a further blow for Unionism, 2022 also marked the year that, for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, Catholics came to outnumber Protestants — who had once formed a two-thirds majority. Rather than Brexit bringing the UK closer together, the binds between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are now weaker than ever, with Irish unification a more realistic prospect than at any time since the 1920 partition (Hayward & Komarova, 2022). This is firstly the result of Brexit taking precedence over Unionism for Boris Johnson’s populist Conservative Party. However, this is also the result of the gross strategic failure of the DUP in backing Brexit in the first place, and by the backing of May’s negotiating red lines before later rejecting her resulting Withdrawal Agreement. As this series has shown, Northern Ireland has continued to form a crucial block for those pursuing Brexit at all stages of the leaving process. The resumption of violence illustrated that peace and security in Northern Ireland remain of the utmost seriousness. In the process, Northern Ireland has acted as the most visible example of the disconnect between the Brexit campaign’s simplified promises, and the more complicated concrete reality facing Twenty-First Century Britain. Finally, it has also shown the willingness of Boris Johnson’s populist government to trample not only Britain’s constitutional Parliamentary rules and expectations, but also the UK’s international legal obligations. As shall be seen, this propensity for disregarding laws ultimately led to Johnson’s downfall.
The Tory Party in Crisis: The Fall of Johnson and the Rise of Liz Truss
Johnson’s Premiership was mired in controversy and scandal almost from the very beginning. However, the issue of leaving the EU, and secondly the Covid crisis, had allowed Johnson to deflect some of this criticism. With the worst of the pandemic over and normal governance beginning to resume, it now became increasingly difficult to deflect from the government’s glaring inadequacies and controversies. In particular, Boris Johnson’s acrimonious sacking of Dominic Cummings in November 2020, after a power struggle within Johnson’s cabinet, saw Cummings then begin to leak a series of highly damaging stories to the press (Hayton, 2021). In November 2021 allegations emerged that Boris Johnson and his staff had held a series of alcohol-fuelled parties and gatherings at Downing Street throughout the lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021 when people in the general public were in confinement including being denied the right to see their own dying family members or attend their funerals (Adam, 2022). This scandal, which quickly became known as “Partygate”, was symbolised most prominently by the Queen sitting alone at her husband Prince Phillip’s funeral, the morning after one such drunken late-night party at Downing Street (Adam, 2022). By January 2022 the police were investigating these instances, which resulted in Johnson and eighty-two others, including his Chancellor Rishi Sunak, being issued fines for criminal behaviour (BBC, 2022).
These controversies were exasperated by multiple policy failures. The Johnson government’s unashamedly populist policies including the deportation of illegal migrants to Rwanda, while still popular among Johnson’s base, were considered damaging to the Conservative Party brand by more moderate MPs. Meanwhile, over two years into Johnson’s Premiership, there had been little sign of the funds promised for the Levelling Up agenda in the North (Fransham et al., 2022). On the contrary, key infrastructure projects in the North that had long been demanded by Northern political leaders, such as the HS3 High-Speed Rail link and one of the Northern sections of the HS2, were axed (Fransham et al., 2022). Finally, with the Covid disruptions having now declined, it was becoming increasingly difficult to disguise the costs of Brexit. Disruptions at the Port of Dover became highly publicised, and Britain’s economic recovery from Covid in comparison to its EU neighbours looked increasingly weak (Posen, 2022). Furthermore, the extra £350 million a week for the NHS promised by the Brexit campaign was looking more fanciful than ever. Meanwhile, the promised increase in fishing quotas for fishing communities — which were among the strongest Brexit-supporting constituencies — had not materialised, with the export of fish to key European markets more difficult (Stewart et al., 2022).
The hit to the wider popularity of Johnson’s government was terminal. Not long after the beginning of the Partygate scandal, Johnson’s popularity ratings — which had already fluctuated throughout the pandemic — now plummeted, with 73% of people feeling he was doing a bad job as Prime Minister by the end of 2021 (YouGov, 2022). Even more damagingly, Labour now consistently overtook the Conservatives in polls with a 5-9% lead (Statista, 2022: I). With their jobs on the line at the next election, and with the damage to the party’s reputation, an ever-increasing number of Conservative MPs from the moderate wing, but even some Brexiters, began to rebel against Johnson’s leadership (Nevett, 2022). With economic difficulties further compounded by the War in Ukraine in the form of high energy bills, increasing inflation and the promise of a difficult winter, the negative news headlines continued to pile up (Posen, 2022). By July the government finally broke, and Boris Johnson’s cabinet resigned en masse, with the killer blow being Rishi Sunak’s resignation as Chancellor (Castle & Robins, 2022). Johnson was forced to resign, and once again it fell to the Conservative Party to pick their fourth leader — and by extension the country’s fourth Prime Minister — since the Brexit referendum of 2016.
The two-month-long Conservative leadership contest was soon narrowed down to two candidates as selected by the party MPs. Rishi Sunak was the MPs’ favourite, but Liz Truss also passed into the final round, in which the leader would now be selected by around 140,000 Conservative Party members (Mance, 2022). For the Party membership, Boris Johnson was still widely popular, and they considered Rishi Sunak to have betrayed him. Liz Truss, meanwhile, despite having campaigned for Remain, had since switched to becoming a Hard Brexiter (Mance, 2022). Truss was known for her staunch ideological commitment to free-market libertarianism, as exemplified by a 2012 book she had co-authored with a group of Conservative Party MPs named “Britannia Unchained” (Mance, 2022). This book, as an explanation for Britain’s low productivity rates, had infamously decried British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world” (Kwarteng et al., 2012, p. 61). The guiding principle was that the rapid abolition of regulations, including consumer and workers regulations, and significant lowering of taxes and shrinking of the state would lead to an era of strong economic growth and trickle-down economics, as individuals, businesses and markets would be encouraged to innovate and invest (Mance, 2022). Low taxes have traditionally been demanded by the Tory membership, and Liz Truss further played on her appeal of hyper-Thatcherism by dressing as, and constantly comparing herself to, the Tory heroine Margaret Thatcher (Mance, 2022). Rishi Sunak as ex-Chancellor, meanwhile, pursued a more realist strategy that warned of the dangers of largescale tax cuts and unfunded spending promises at a time of high inflation. Nevertheless, Truss ultimately won the leadership contest on 5th September and was announced as Britain’s next Prime Minister and hailed by much of the right-wing Conservative press.
If Johnson represented the populist nationalist vision for Brexit appealing to the masses, Liz Truss represented the libertarian free-market vision for Brexit appealing to Brexit’s ideologically committed political and financial backers. In response to cost-of-living fears, after initially refusing to pledge help, Truss had promised under pressure a blanket £100 billion government non-targeted investment for two years to ease high energy bills (Mance, 2022). Whilst Labour called for a windfall tax on Energy Companies’ record profits to pay for this, Truss instead said this would be paid for by government borrowing (Mance, 2022). She had further promised not to cut any more budgets for already-collapsing key public services, with the NHS in particular on its knees after ten years of austerity followed by Covid (Mance, 2022). The death of Queen Elizabeth II just two days later, and the subsequent ten-day mourning period amidst a time of national unity, gave Truss the opportunity to prepare her strategy. She filled her cabinet, much like Johnson, with loyalists who were committed to her free-market vision (Mance, 2022). Just four days after the Queen’s funeral, Truss’s long-time friend and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced his now-infamous mini-budget. The top rate of income tax would be abolished, the cap on bankers’ bonuses would be lifted, the base rate of tax would be lowered, and the planned rise on Corporation tax from 19% to 25% would be scrapped (Mance, 2022). This mini-budget turned into a full-blown and self-inflicted economic crisis.