The first 100 days: Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ is now unsustainable
Boris Johnson’s commitment not to extend the transition period beyond 31st December 2020 is one that was made before global priorities shifted and before it was necessary for every resource and every attention to be diverted to tackling this health crisis, writes Laura Hutchinson.
Sunday marks the first 100 days since the General Election. No significant progress has been made thus far in Brexit trade talks, and future talks are in limbo as we try to overcome this global health crisis.
Things did not look optimistic for Boris Johnson when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party in July 2019, fulfilling a lifelong ambition of becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
He suffered unrelenting, successive and instantaneous parliamentary defeats, mass rebellion from key members of his party (leading to a number of high level ‘sackings’) and his attempted prorogation of Parliament was deemed unlawful in an astonishing landmark ruling by the Supreme Court. His Government faced a similar fate to that of his predecessors, but his luck changed when, after several attempts, he persuaded the opposition parties to take a gamble and vote for an early general election. A gamble which presumably most opposition parties now regret, after it delivered Johnson and the Conservative Party the largest majority they have had since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
Approaching its 100th day in power, this Government and Prime Minister, however, have had to quickly understand and adapt to the reality that a majority does not equate to smooth or easy governance.
During the election campaign, Boris Johnson outlined his commitment to the British people of what he would achieve in his first 100 days if elected, with commitments ranging from: implementing a rise in the national insurance threshold; to passing legislation that would end the automatic release of serious violent and sexual offenders half way through their sentence.
He has successfully met most of his stated commitments for his first three months – most notably on Brexit.
The General Election was dominated by the Conservative’s pledge to “Get Brexit Done” by passing Johnson’s “oven ready” Withdrawal Agreement Bill – which they successfully did, unamended, two months ago, four years on from the referendum. However, the implied conclusion in the election slogan is misleading – Brexit has not been “done” in the sense that it has been resolved or finalised, only stage one of the process has ended.
The UK has now entered into a transition period with the EU, in which all future arrangements governing the two sides relationship is expected to be decided. The clause that allowed for this period – currently set to end on 31st December 2020 – to be extended for up to two years was removed from the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by Johnson, having been emboldened by his majority.
However, no significant progress has been made by either side so far and recent global events have put the possibility of future talks in limbo.
When Boris Johnson promised the nation a “fantastic year ahead” in his New Year’s message, no one could have envisioned the current situation the country and world finds itself in. A virus that first took hold in Wuhan, China has progressed into a global pandemic: shutting down continents and countries and causing the global markets to spiral.
Just over a week since the Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered the Government’s first Budget – one that promised to honour on their manifesto commitments and “level up” across Britain - the country looks a very different place already.
The Government now faces having to deal with and mitigate against the impact of a health crisis which will affect every sector, every business and every individual’s way of life over the coming months. It will consume Whitehall, central and local Government, and it is difficult to envision any headway being made on the Prime Minister’s domestic and international agenda until this crisis passes.
Which means that the Government’s current position that it will not extend the Brexit transition period beyond 31st December 2020 is not sustainable.
Talks cannot progress significantly without face to face meetings, and even if they could the capability to engage on the level required simply will not be possible over the next few months, either in the UK civil service and Government or the European Union. Unstitching the UK from a union in which it has been a member of for almost 50 years is a mammoth task in peace time, let alone when fighting a war against a virus to which there is no cure or vaccine.
The UK civil service and the Government will not have the capacity to do the things required in order to leave smoothly on the 31st December 2020: processes relating to the Northern Ireland protocol would need to be up and running, along with other necessary customs and border checks; new border staff need to be trained and in place; a new immigration system must be fully operational. These are just to name a few.
Trade talks will not be a priority for any nation over the next six months, which makes the possibility of the UK agreeing any in the next couple of years incredibly ambitious.
Perhaps most importantly, businesses will suffer the most extraordinary disruption over the next few months as the market, government and consumers react to the Covid-19 outbreak.
They will face unprecedented levels of uncertainty and instability, with little or no capacity to plan long term or strategically and with depleting resources – both in terms of skills and funds. Whilst the measures for business announced by the Chancellor this week are welcome, they will not protect them completely and the suggestion that they can manage this economic shock whilst simultaneously making key changes to their operations and supply chains ahead of Brexit is unrealistic and unreasonable.
Boris Johnson’s commitment not to extend the transition period beyond 31st December 2020 is one that was made before global priorities shifted and before it was necessary for every resource and every attention to be diverted to tackling this health crisis. It is an ideological commitment, and one that must be reneged on if the Government is committed to doing “whatever it takes” to safeguard and protect businesses, jobs and the economy.
To learn more and be part of the discussion on the government’s first 100 days, register for our free webinar on Wednesday 25th March at 11am HERE.