Brexit wraps up

They couldn’t have cut it much finer, but on Christmas eve negotiators from Britain and the European Union finally signed off on a trade agreement to govern their future relationship after the Brexit transitional period expires later this week. The spectre of a “no deal” departure, which in different forms has stalked the Brexit saga through its twists and turns over the last three years, has now been laid to rest.

That doesn’t mean everything will be simple from here. The agreement ensures that no tariff wall will go up in the English Channel on Friday, but there will still be lots of new paperwork and unpleasant restrictions for businesses that have become used to frictionless trade with the continent. British and – to a lesser extent – European consumers will ultimately pay the price.

At this stage, however, no-one knows how large that price will be. Which means that although Brexit is now officially a done deal, its political implications will ricochet uncertainly for months and years to come.

For now, prime minister Boris Johnson is a hero. He may have given ground on various fronts in order to secure the deal, but few voters will scrutinise the detail. As far as the headlines are concerned, he has delivered what he promised: a new trading relationship with Europe that safeguards British “sovereignty” and draws a line under the debate that has poisoned British politics for the best part of three decades.

That could change quickly if the first weeks of the new year are marked by long delays in cross-border traffic and associated horror stories. And it could change more slowly and more durably if it gradually dawns on British voters that breaking loose from the continent has made their lives more difficult while bringing few compensating benefits.

The political impact will be particularly important in Scotland, which goes to the polls in early May. Its nationalist government has its eye set on winning a majority in its own right and therefore a mandate for a new referendum on independence. A year or two of unhappy Brexit experiences would make success in such a referendum much more likely.

The British parliament is being recalled for tomorrow to approve the deal. There’s no doubt that it will do so; Labour has promised to support it, a decision that has drawn some criticism for opposition leader Keir Starmer. But even without Labour’s help it is most unlikely that there would be enough defectors in Conservative ranks to imperil its passage.

While in many ways very little has changed in the last three years, this has been the one big change: the Tory backbench, dominated by hard Brexiters, that gave so much trouble to Theresa May has been largely quiescent under Johnson, despite the substantial concessions he has made to the Europeans.

It illustrates that politics, and especially Brexit politics, is about tribal identity rather than specific issues. For the Brexiters, Johnson is one of them: he may not give them all they want, but he echoes their rhetoric and gives respectability to their prejudices. In return they will support him, even if the substantive differences between him and May are hard to discern.

The anti-Brexiters, understandably enough, are mostly quiet as well. Starmer’s support for the deal is an acknowledgement of the fact that the pro-Europeans have no real alternative. Voting down a trade deal would not bring EU membership back: if rejoining the union is to become a live political issue, it can only be on the basis of some years of experience of the new situation.

Britain has made its Brexit bed; now it has to lie in it.

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