A look at what might happen next and how Brexit is being covered in the media. This piece has links to a wide range of articles that go into more depth.
As the UK marks the first anniversary of the Brexit vote, it is incredible how much the world, as it relates to Brexit, has changed since the referendum a year ago. What Brexit is, has done, and will be is perhaps less clear than it was when the country was asked to vote on the topic.
After Brexit, Trump won the U.S. election, Macron won the French election, May kind of won the British election, but with her majority and authority in tatters. She is now holding onto power by virtue of a deal with the hard-right, creationist, homophobic, anti-Europe Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This deal has been criticized across the board, including former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, who fears it will undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland.
After the U.S. election, Theresa May rushed off to the States to meet with and ingratiate herself to Trump, because she needed U.S. trade to replace that of Europe. This culminated in May offering Trump a state visit to the UK, an honor not usually given to U.S. presidents until their second term. It was all the more controversial since the UK as a whole was generally appalled by Trump, and the idea of him being given our highest honor went down badly. Since the last British election, the state visit has become a moot point, with rumors suggesting Trump wants to postpone it until he will be greeted with fewer demonstrations, which most British people interpret as never. However, it was seen as a sign of how Brexit has weakened the UK’s trading position that May had to grovel to Trump just when other Western leaders were comfortable openly criticizing him, in particular when he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord.
And on the subject of Paris, Macron’s landslide win for a pro-European, centrist political agenda that rejected the old two-party factional tradition, just as the UK reverted back to old fashioned left-right factions, led one Frenchman on Facebook to comment gleefully, “Britain is the new France.” Ironically, it is very likely that Brexit was a catalyst for the rejection of the hard right, anti-European politicians of France and Holland in favor of reformist, pro-European centrists. Macron and Merkel, if she wins her election soon, look like they have the strength, mandate, and willpower to make the reforms that the EU desperately needs and which caused the UK to leave it. The UK may end up leaving the party just as it got good.
But back in the UK, it is tumultuous. Theresa May called an election to give her a mandate to pursue a “hard Brexit” — pulling out of the EU at any cost, and out of the single market, and customs union, with the now-infamous line that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” This suggested that if the EU failed to agree to the terms the UK wanted before the two-year negotiating period expired, the UK would leave anyway and fall back to World Trade Organization trading terms, something the Brexiteers see as a price worth paying but that the City and businesses see as a disaster. The Financial Times rubbishes the idea of “no deal” in an article, pointing out that leaving the EU has to offer a worse position to the UK than being in it, otherwise what’s the value for anyone of being in the European Union.
Whilst the pro-Brexit and hard-right politicians and voters thumbed their teeth at the Europeans, posturing an aggressive negotiating stance, economists, business leaders, and pretty well everyone else could not hide their horror at the idea. May’s disastrous election, in which she lost her majority, is seen as a rejection of her hard-Brexit agenda.
Since the election, with May’s parliamentary majority damaged, Parliament itself is becoming more empowered, with politicians reaching out across party divides to find common ground to force a much softer Brexit. The Independent reports an unnamed Conservative minister saying, “This is no longer a question just for Government. It is clear to me that Parliament will want to assert its role in a way it did not before.” Leading former Conservative ministers, like Ken Clarke and William Hague, as well as Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who have called for a cross-party commission on Brexit, to reach a consensus by all parties in Parliament. This is understood by the pro-Brexit camp as meaning a watering down of the hard Brexit they want at any cost.
David Davis, the minister who is negotiating on behalf of the UK, as minister for leaving the EU, went into the Brexit campaign saying he would definitely get the deal he wanted. In his first meeting in Brussels, Davis was widely seen to have caved during the first negotiation over which order aspects of Brexit would be agreed. He has now shocked many by saying on the BBC (when previously quoted as saying, “We are guaranteed to get a deal”): “You can be sure there will be a deal, whether it’s the deal I want which is the free trade agreement, the customs agreement and so on — I’m pretty sure but I’m not certain.” This is being reported as a matter of fact by the right-wing, anti-Europe Daily Mail. Meanwhile, the left-wing, pro-Europe Guardian quotes Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake as saying, “These negotiations will affect our lives for decades, but he’s only ‘pretty sure’ of getting a deal. It is simply not good enough.” They also quote Lord Paten, a former Conservative minister, talking about “the calamitous errors of two Conservative prime ministers” — citing May and David Cameron — for plunging the country into “a hell of a mess.”
The Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party is still arguing for a full, hard Brexit, regardless of the terms or cost. In a way, they now have more power over May, because she relies on every one of her MPs to vote in Parliament in order to pass legislation. In addition to that, her new political Mephistopheles, the DUP, have agreed to vote for her most important legislation, giving May a 13-vote majority in Parliament provided she panders to their demands.
May is stuck in the middle of part of her own party and the DUP pulling her toward hard Brexit at any cost, while the rest of Parliament and much of May’s party will be voting to undermine anything less than a soft and gentle departure from the EU.
Consequently, it is widely agreed that May will not last long as prime minister. Indeed, she has the look of a woman in political purgatory, forced to stay in her job by a party punishing her for one of the worst election campaigns in living memory until they choose finally to pull her down into Hell by removing her from Downing Street, as the Tories so unceremoniously do from time to time. The current chancellor, UK Finance Minister Philip Hammond, is assiduously denying he is positioning himself to take her place, so one must assume he is in fact doing just that. Hammond wants a pro-business Brexit that puts the economy first, which means a soft Brexit retaining access to the single market, and therefore presumably retaining some sort of freedom of movement. Contrary to his prime minister and her Brexit minister, Hammond told the BBC, “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain”
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn continues to celebrate losing the election much less badly than expected, positioning himself as the next prime minister after what he and most people assume will be yet another election sometime soon. (Corbyn suggests he’ll be PM in six months.) The pro-Conservative Spectator ran a piece suggesting that a Labour-led Brexit would be a far worse thing than the Brexit being negotiated by the current Conservative government. The paper suggests the rise of Corbyn has increased uncertainty in the UK and made it less attractive to foreign investors. Sir Vince Cable, running to lead the Liberal Democrats, argued for a moderating of the political discourse, with parties working together, and a greater focus on the economy.
The media coverage of all this has been interesting. Reuters Institute found that the British media was overwhelmingly pro-Brexit during the referendum, propagating a lot of statements and promises that soon after turned out to be untrue, most famously that the NHS would get £350 million a year more if we leave. The Guardian suggested that “British newspapers were mainly in favour of Brexit, with the Mail, Telegraph, Express and Star accounting for four times as many readers and anti-EU stories as their pro-remain rivals.” A full breakdown of the British media’s stance on Brexit, along with the reader numbers of each publication, was produced by Louise Ridley at the Huffington Post.
Currently, in my own liberal pro-Europe echo chamber, I see a constant stream of stories about how awful Brexit is turning out to be. As far as I can tell, these are based on facts and statistics. The pound has slumped since Brexit, the economy is slowing, and property is going down. Along with inflation, it means the British are poorer today than they were before the referendum. Of course, a dropping pound has helped exporters, but it has equally hurt importers.
A bizarre impact of all this, picked up by the liberal media, is the effect on immigration. To a great extent, the Brexit campaign was about controlling immigration, culminating in one of the low points in this country’s political narrative: UKIP’s poster claiming the immigration was at “breaking point.”
In her election manifesto, Theresa May again said she would cut annual net immigration to below 100,000. This has been a Tory promise for some time, but one that they have in no way met, or even come close to. As home secretary, May was instrumental in making it much harder to get into the UK, as anyone who has legitimately married a foreigner recently will have found when their spouse tried to join them.
However, May had to drop the immigration target from her Queen’s Speech (policy agenda in Parliament) because it had so little support beyond the hard right and was totally unrealistic. Despite this, the anti-immigrant message has already been heard abroad, and in anticipation, the Europeans have stopped coming of their own accord. The media reported a 96 percent drop in applications from EU nurses to work in the NHS since the Brexit vote, which would lead to a shortage of 40,000 nurses. The pro-Brexit, anti-immigration Daily Express reports this without any comment, seeming to contradict its previous stand on both topics — one would assume it would celebrate the fact.
The Daily Express has been directly criticized by the EU for what we would now call “fake news” articles about the EU. But the 410,000 readers of the Express are unlikely to read such rebuttals on the EU’s own fact-checking website.
Another effect of Brexit has been in the fruit-picking industry, which is warning of a collapse due to a shortage of temporary migrant labor, who traditionally come to the UK from Eastern Europe in summer to pick crops. One fruit producer who voted for Brexit talked of his regret once he found his business will go bust within 24 months due to a lack of foreign labor. However, contrasting this, the BBC reports a considerable increase in exports of British food, and even British wine, thanks to the fall in the value of the sterling.
Looking beyond the obviously pro-Remain, left-leaning, liberal media like the Guardian, one imagines the traditionally conservative newspapers like the Telegraph, known fondly as the Torygraph, and the Spectator might be celebrating how well Brexit is going. However, they are also furious with Theresa May for the damage she has done to their Conservative party, so the message is mixed. The Telegraph ran an article saying that the damage predicted by “project fear” hasn’t yet materialized, but that seems a long way from suggesting that all the great things promised by the Brexit campaign are coming true. Curiously, even the Daily Mail appears to have changed tack, from being vehemently pro-hard-Brexit to running a piece by former Conservative minister Stephen Crabb arguing for a Brexit deal focused on protecting jobs and the economy and backing Philip Hammond’s call for a softer Brexit. The article concludes that “delivering this is not to betray Brexit. It is to fulfil it.”
A member of the Welsh Assembly (devolved Welsh Parliament) who campaigned to leave wrote that “there is little evidence to suggest that there is any public appetite for that process to be checked, or reversed.” He is writing in Brexit Central, a blog for pro-Leave supporters. The blog also features an article by a Welsh academic arguing a positive economic outlook resulting from Brexit, concluding that the fall in the pound is leading to “demand…from exports and from import substitution.”
Research has shown that Wales, which voted strongly in favor of leaving the EU, received around £245 million per year from the UK’s membership in the EU, as it was one of the poor regions of the country that benefited from regional development funds. The Independent quotes research suggesting that support for Brexit in Wales has fallen since the referendum as the country started to realize how much EU money its region had received—and would now lose.
Meanwhile, contrary to the Welsh academic, the Independent reports that the UK is now the worst-performing advanced economy in the world: “Before the Brexit vote, just under a year ago, the UK economy was flying high, outgrowing Germany, Japan and the US. Now Britain is languishing alongside Italy, whose economy also grew at 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of the year.”
Interviews in Wales and elsewhere show people who voted Leave regretting their vote, suggesting it was based on promises by the Leave campaign that have since been retracted, in particular that the NHS would receive an extra £350 million per week. The claims made by both sides in the campaign were confusing, as shown by the Financial Times, which attempted to fact-check them.
Looking for positive stories about Brexit is proving harder, but one positive spin that at least suggested things are not as bad was about the recent investment round by UK startup Yoyo, which some have heralded as a sign that Brexit is not damaging the UK tech scene. However, a less talked-about (and less easy-to-digest) story about the EIF withdrawing its funding from the UK heralds a massive blow to UK tech investment, which is heavily underpinned by the European Investment Fund. These two stories reflect the wider coverage, which seems to suggest that things are awful (Remainers) or not so bad (Leavers), but also that the positive stories tend to be very much short-term (a startup raising money) and ignore the long-term predictions (the EIF pulling out of funding the UK startup sector).
Overall, media coverage seems to fall into two camps. The anti-Brexit media is very negative, arguing that the damage predicted has already started (labor shortage, devaluation, political instability) and will get worse. The pro-Brexit media, much of which was very outspoken during the referendum, appears to have changed its message from how good Brexit will be to a two-pronged theme of attacking the anti-Brexit stories and arguing that things aren’t so bad. Any good news stories seem to focus on very immediate events and do not address the long-term problems. That is, of course, my own biased opinion and perhaps also reflects how hard it is to see out of one’s echo chamber, even when you try. Meanwhile, with a view from abroad, this Swiss article on Brexit recently went viral, in German and English, calling the UK the laughing stock of Europe.
A number of possibilities are now being posited about how Brexit could play out. They are, of course, all just suppositions, but the emphasis has certainly changed since May won-but-lost her election.
One possibility is that the talks will just go on and on, and after years will gradually fizzle out, and nothing will happen. Governments will come and go, future elections will supersede the referendum, and appetite for Brexit will wane further until there is no real desire for it. This builds on the belief that the task of pulling the UK out of Europe is, in fact, so complex that it cannot be done in the allotted time.
A second notion is that a deal will be negotiated and will simply not be good for the UK, so the politicians, whoever is in power, will after all take it to the people in a second referendum, where it will defeated. This is a way out for any government that pulls together a bad deal for the country.
Another scenario sees the UK leaving the EU, but in such a token way that not a lot changes. This is toward the Norwegian scenario.
Finally, of course, the UK fully leaves the EU with some sort of hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union and ending freedom of movement. However, with the last election changing the balance of power away from May and the Leave campaigners in her party, this is beginning to look less likely and less popular.
My own guess about what will happen next? It seems unlikely Theresa May will remain prime minister for her full term. There may be another election sometime before Brexit, though all politicians are clear that the British people are currently suffering from election fatigue. If Labour wins, it is very unclear how things will progress, as their spending plans do not take into account how Brexit is weakening the economy. Or Philip Hammond could become prime minister relatively soon. If he does, he is arguing that he will push for a Brexit deal that favors business and the economy. The good news, for anyone centrist and moderate, is that Parliament is now strengthened by the election May hoped would weaken it, and it looks like they will force her into a softer Brexit. This may, in the end, become an academic exercise in which the UK technically leaves and gets more control over its borders, but not a lot else changes.
But this could all change: Certainty is in short supply in the UK.