The discharge of the mandate – the real significance of Brexit Day, 31st January 2020

31st January 2020

Today is the last day of the United Kingdom being a member state of the European Union – at least for some time, if not forever.

That said, there is remarkably little that will change immediately.

This is thanks to the selfless and deft actions of many Members of Parliament – many of whom no longer have seats – in ensuring the United Kingdom averted a “no deal” Brexit.

Because of elaborate withdrawal arrangements – the hidden wiring of Brexit – there will be substantial continuity until at least 31st December 2020.

This hidden wiring will allow Brexit supporters to revel in the lack of immediate adverse effects – even though many Brexit supporters opposed the withdrawal arrangements as long as possible.

In a way, they have managed to have their cakes and to eat them.

But the lack of sudden drama does not rob today of all significance.

For today is the day when the referendum mandate is discharged, and things can start afresh


The referendum question back in June 2016 was:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

And at 11pm today, local time, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

Of course, some Brexiters insist there is a lot more to the mandate than the simple question of membership: taking back control of money, laws, borders, and so on.

But such things must be written in invisible ink, because the referendum question does not expressly include them.

The referendum question as posed was on membership alone.

And at the end of today the United Kingdom will no longer be a member.


There are those – perhaps they are already typing comments below – who will dispute that the referendum was capable of giving rise to a mandate, or will aver that the mandate was invalid because of corruption and illegalities.

As a “mandate” here is a political rather than a legal concept, this is an argument without end – and it is now an argument without any point.

To the extent that there was doubt as to the political validity of the 2016 referendum the December 2019 general election result has settled the matter.

No doubt, like a Civil War re-enactment society, there will be those who sill want to re-fight – even re-litigate – the 2016 referendum.

But to those it must be said there are real political battles – battles the outcomes of which are very much up for grabs – ahead.

There is now a clean battlefield.

And that is because the mandate has been discharged.


When a mandate has been discharged, it comes to an end.

The thing which was mandated has been done, the mandatory order is fulfilled.

And when a mandate comes to an end, it has no further purchase.

The United Kingdom’s future as not a member state of the European Union is capable of  having many shapes and forms.

The only requirement is that the United Kingdom not be a member state of the European Union.

These outcomes can range from the united Kingdom becoming the North Korea of the North Sea…

…to a relationship so close to the European Union that, but for the technical legalistic question of actual membership, is remarkably similar to the current position – even on freedom of movement.

And between these two positions are an infinite number of other possible arrangements.

The referendum result, in and of itself, does not rule out any one of these non-membership outcomes.


Here the speech this week of Michel Barnier is the most important development of the week – other than the fact of departure.

The EU is proposing an Association Agreement – which means common institutions and processes.

And because of Boris Johnson’s insistence on there being a relationship deal in place by the end of this year, the case for such an agreement is compelling – as it will remove the need for bespoke co-decision, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for different areas.

Every regulatory and structural issue can then be handled within the Association Agreement’s framework.

And in turn the structure, institutions and processes of the Association Agreement can then provide a sustainable basis for a long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union.

(A relationship that can endure until and unless a later political generation ever has an undisputed mandate for the United Kingdom to rejoin.)

Nothing here should be a shock – for all this is set out in the Political Declaration , accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement.

And the embryonic institutional apparatus is provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Both of which have been endorsed by by the government and its Brexit supporters.

(Though they may not have read and understood what they were signing up for, as with the earlier joint declaration.)

Of course, there is no inherent reason why at the end of this year the Withdrawal Agreement will morph seamlessly into an Association Agreement.

But there is no inherent reason why it will not either.

Both outcomes are now perfectly possible, as are many others.

And that is because today the mandate has been discharged, and things can start afresh.


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17 thoughts on “The discharge of the mandate – the real significance of Brexit Day, 31st January 2020”

  1. A very clear and balanced statement, which also offers a path for those ‘Remainers in spirit’ who want to mitigate the effects of this dreadful (in our view) mistake.

    The battle is lost, this war is basically over but the peace agreement is yet to be negotiated and signed.

  2. Thank you, very wise words I think. It will be fascinating to see how things work out, over the next eleven months particularly, as the realities of detail become even more clear.

  3. As usual your forensic insight along with Prof Grey’s have proven invaluable for 3.5 years of watching the Brexit debacle unfold. I’m delighted by the Barnier Art 217 offer as clearly an upgrade over what I’d anticipated of Art 218 bare bones FTA but in my experience EU Association Agreements can be somewhat symbolic and exist with countries as politically distant as Syria albeit that one is now suspended.

  4. As you say the agreement “could” morph into an association, but you ignore the politics. The Brexit Taleban would screech that the type of arrangement you envisage is BINO (they’d be right) and the Johnson government could not survive it.
    Frankly, I fear we have entered into a “civil war” where Brexiters will continue to be at odds with more rational protagonists. Brexit makes no economic sense and provides negligible “touchy, feely” benefit. When the economic pain hits (this time next year) any uneasy ceasefire will end. The greater the schism between the UK and the EU is, the worse will be the economic impact on our country. Brexiters will howl that “this is not what we were promised” and the rest of us will chorus that we told them so. As time passes, the vanguard of the Brexit spasm will (quite literally) die off and the ranks of what will henceforth become “rejoiners” will be swelled by younger people and fickle Brexiteers (on Brexit day, not a single poll on the subject has returned a leave majority since July 2017).
    The UK will seek to rejoin the EU, the big question is will the “friends and partners” we have so abused have us back in.

    1. “but you ignore the politics”

      A disappointing comment, given I expressly state that there are many possible outcomes

      1. Granted that you did, but that doesn’t free you from the obligation of squaring this (in the circumstances) highly reasonable course of events with the political reality that we find ourselves in. Brexit was always a Tory psychodrama and May’s failure to deliver an acceptable (or multi-party) form of Brexit was due to her appeasing extremists in her own party. This painted her into an impossible corner. Johnson got the gig on a promise to “get Brexit done” and cannot make the political compromises that your vision requires whilst leading a “united” Tory Party. He is still in the same corner and is merely using a different hue of paint.
        Brexit is a poison challice that the government must drink deeply from. I simply don’t see that the political lattitude exists for a pragmatic outcome. Ultimately, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party will survive Brexit in the configurations that they started the sorry process in.

  5. Thank you David – wise words indeed and much needed at this time.

    We are where we are. Yes Remain lost (that should tell the Remainers many things – not least that their case may never have been as strong or as well supported – when weighed against other considerations – as they hoped or believed).

    We could stand around moaning about past defeats (much like the US Democrats wasted years moaning about ‘hanging chads’ while Bush Jr chalked up another win, two wars, and a financial crisis.

    Or we could choose to use the time available to us and what influence we may have to shape the terms of the debate over the next few months. Time is very short – our direction of travel will be pretty much set by June.

    Johnson needs to be encouraged to see the Association Agreement (long proposed by Andrew Duff and others) for what it is – the best framework for a stable, strong and mutually beneficial future relationship.

    From tomorrow, he is no longer dependent on ERG zealots to get a deal through. He has already made clear that parliament won’t have day to day control over the process. Moderates from all parties need to work on persuading him to choose a route that is in the best interests of this country.

    It would avoid another damaging cliff edge next year. It would give certainty and clarity to business sooner rather than later. It would make the process of adapting from membership to new relationship smoother, quicker and manageable. This would free up government and the civil service to tackle the glaring and persistent problems that really plague this country.

    If Johnson really is the moderate, liberal-minded, one nation Tory that some of his supporters claim, he will leap at this chance to really get Brexit done for good. It would make the rest of his term in office that much easier – and likely to be more successful.


  6. Richard North on makes the point that the association agreement with the Ukraine contains over 2000 pages. And quotes Article 56.

    I can’t pretend to have more than browsed the first 168 pages (after that it’s protocols and appendices) but it’s full of stuff like this:

    ” Upon a request by the exporting Party concerning recognition of equivalence, as set out in paragraph 1 of this
    Article, the Parties shall without delay and no later than three months following receipt by the importing Party of such
    request, initiate the consultation process which includes the steps set out in Annex IX to this Agreement. However, if
    multiple requests are made by the exporting Party, the Parties, at the request of the importing Party, shall agree within the
    SPS Sub-Committee referred to in Article 74 of this Agreement on a time schedule in which they shall initiate and
    conduct the process referred to in this paragraph.”

    So I can’t help but think that we’re going to need quite a lot of that 360 million on the bus.

  7. Thank you for your wise comments and your link to the Michel Barnier speech. Do please keep analyzing the fortunes of the Association Agreement over the coming year. Many of us here in Estonia will be hoping for an Association Agreement that lets the UK continue contributing constructively to Europe. – (signed) Toomas Karmo (Nõo Rural Municipality, Estonia – approx 200 km south-southwest of Tallinn, approx 250 km south-southwest of Helsinki)

  8. My guess is that momentum to rejoin the EU will be unstoppable in Abbott 3 years and the printer minister at the time whether Johnson or someone else will fight the general election in 2023/4 on rejoining the EU.
    My reasoning for what will be judged as an outrageous suggestion that defies logic is simply based on an analysis of the likely economic consequences of leaving. Economic prediction may not always be accurate but the conclusions of economic analysis are ineluctable

  9. David Allen Green provides light in the darkness.
    Whether Mr Johnson and his chums have the wit to follow the route of an Association Agreement is another matter.
    One can but hope that pragmatism will trump extremism.

  10. Does that discharged mandate and “clean battlefield ” also absolve Vote Leave, Cummings, etc from further investigation and Cummings from contempt of parliament in refusing to attend the DCMS committee. Are all those slates of previous governments also wiped clean?

  11. I,and I’m sure many other UK citizens, would like to know is does any part of the Lisbon Treaty apply to us?

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