Breakingviews: Boris Johnson’s exit is the beginning of the end for Brexit


Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement at Downing Street in London, Britain July 7, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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LONDON, July 7 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Brexit has helped propel Boris Johnson to Britain’s highest office. His turbulent three years as prime minister revealed the costs of that decision. His departure will not spare Britain the lasting economic and diplomatic damage caused by its exit from the European Union. But the idea of ​​Brexit as a force for reorganizing British society died with Johnson’s resignation speech on Thursday.

Some of the Prime Minister’s former followers have sensed the change in political climate. Stepping down as chancellor on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak wrote that “our people need to know that if something is too good to be true, then it is not true.” It’s a stark statement from a politician who has spent much of the past six years touting the opportunities for Britain to divorce its biggest trading partner, while downplaying the costs of doing so.

Indeed, the Brexit movement was based on telling people things that even then were too good to be true. The 2016 referendum campaign tossed out simplistic slogans about money for the National Health Service while labeling concerns as “draft scare”. After the vote, supporters pushed for the toughest separation possible while attacking those they suspected of thwarting their agenda: not only rival politicians, but also civil servants, diplomats, judges, business executives , financiers, academics and journalists. And as the costs of the Brexit divorce became harder to ignore, his supporters blamed other factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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To be clear, Brexit is not the reason Johnson was forced to resign just two and a half years after a resounding election victory. The blame lies entirely with the former Mayor of London and his chaotic approach to government. He presided over office parties that broke the Covid-19 lockdown rules his government designed and promoted an ally he knew had faced allegations of sexual misconduct. The scandals have devalued what was once his greatest political asset: his popularity with voters.

Nevertheless, Brexit has added to the feeling of unease. Trade frictions have left Britain with higher inflation and slower economic growth than many other developed countries; UK Office for Budget Responsibility waits reduce UK exports and imports by 15% in the long term. The government is legislating to roll back parts of its trade deal with the EU just 18 months after Johnson signed it. Meanwhile, ministers have been looking for increasingly outlandish Brexit “opportunities”, ranging from returning imperial measures to turning London into a global hub for crypto assets.

Those hoping to replace Johnson will now be vying to distance themselves from that legacy. Sunak’s resignation letter offers indications of the values ​​he and his rivals will adopt: seriousness, competence, honesty. While some true believers may campaign to pursue Johnson’s vision, it’s hard to see many prime minister candidates bragging about helping to “get Brexit done”.

Instead, the next leader will have to wrestle with the difficult questions that Johnson has done his best to avoid: how to resolve the impasse over Northern Ireland, whether to deviate further from the regulations of the EU, whether to cut taxes or increase spending. In the process, the electoral coalition that Johnson assembled in 2019 risks fracturing.

This does not mean that a future British government will seek to reverse Brexit. Even the opposition Labor Party has ruled out joining the EU. Britain will still have to live with the economic consequences of leaving, which at the end of 2021 had lowered economic output by 5% and investment by 14%, according to John Springford of the Center for European Reform. A more plausible scenario is that Brexit becomes an unpleasant reality that needs to be managed, like air pollution or the illicit drug trade.

As a political idea, however, Brexit is now exhausted. Johnson’s intervention in the referendum was crucial in influencing the public to leave the EU. His chaotic tenure as Prime Minister discredited this movement as a cohesive force to change Britain. For Brexit, the departure of the Prime Minister is the beginning of the end.

Follow @peter_tl on Twitter

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The views expressed are his own.)


Scandal-ridden Boris Johnson announced on July 7 that he would step down as Britain’s prime minister after being dumped by ministers and most of his Tory lawmakers.

The pound was up 0.4% against the US dollar at $1.1979 at 12:30 GMT on July 7.

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Editing by George Hay and Oliver Taslic

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias by principles of trust.


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