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Election direct result of Brexit

Dr Elizabeth Monaghan, Lecturer in Politics, gives her view on downplaying Brexit in current election campaigning

The election – just like the last and possibly like the next – is a direct result of Brexit. 

Yet the issue of Brexit – and more broadly the UK’s relations with the EU – has not featured heavily in the campaign as a substantive issue. The Liberal Democrats have gone quiet on their commitment to revoke Article 50, and Labour have avoided clarifying the exact nature of their Brexit policy.

The Conservatives seem to have at least put Brexit at the centre of their campaign, but behind the slogan “get Brexit done” none of the complexity has been addressed. Quite the contrary: Brexit is presented as something that can be completed by the end of January, after which the UK can move on to more important issues.

However nothing could be further from the truth. Upon leaving the EU the UK will enter into a transition period during which most rules would still apply – in order to avoid a cliff edge, and to allow for time to negotiate a trade deal for the future relationship. Theresa May’s original exit deal set this period to last from 30 March 2019 to 31 December 2020, and while the deadline to leave has been extended, the transition period has not. This means that the government will have a transition period of only 11 months (half of that originally envisaged) during which to agree its future relationship with the EU.

Is this enough time to negotiate a trade deal? Past experience of EU trade deals suggests not: one of the most recently successfully concluded deals with Canada – CETA – took seven years.

But Canada is not the UK – on the one hand the UK deal will include services (the Canada deal did not) which adds another layer of complexity. But on the other hand the UK and the EU, unlike Canada and the EU, are currently completely aligned in terms of regulation, and will continue to be on 1 February until and unless the UK takes back control by making new laws governing goods, services and capital. 

Johnson’s supporters also point out that he managed to agree a new deal with the EU in a short time when many thought that he would not be able to. Yet on closer inspection he was able to do so because he acceded to the EU’s insistence that there would not be a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – crossing a red line he had previously insisted he would not.

A trade deal with the EU concluded by the end of 2020 is only likely if the UK is prepared to make significant concessions that safeguard the integrity of the EU’s single market – in other words adhering to EU regulatory standards (though of course having no say in how they are defined, not exactly “taking back control”). In other words, crossing more red lines.

A similar pattern is likely to follow for future trade deals, for example with the US: moving quickly will require the UK to make concessions. The UK’s trade partners will not have as strong an incentive to change the status quo (i.e. one of no deal) as much as the UK will. For the UK to convince them to act, or in other words to change the status quo, it will need to accept its partner’s terms.

Because little of this complexity has been discussed during the campaign, the UK’s future security and success rely on that standard election campaign trope: “can you really trust what the politicians are saying?”


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