How a government capable of ‘cancelling Christmas’ did not extend the Brexit transition period – or why populism keeps prevailing over prudence

Winter Solstice, 2020

How did it come to pass that a government capable of ‘cancelling Christmas’ did not extend the Brexit transition period,?

Why is the United Kingdom having to deal simultaneously with the effects of both a pandemic and the departure from the European Union?


The Brexit withdrawal agreement provided for a transition period, where the United Kingdom remained part of the European Union in substance if not in legal from (though not part of the law and policy making institutions).

Article 126 of that exit agreement provided that this extension period would end on 31 December 2020.


The exit agreement also provided that the transition period could be extended – either by one or even two years.

This was a prudent provision –  just in case something happened which meant the brisk ‘let’s get Brexit done’ timetable was not possible because of some significant development – well, like a worldwide pandemic.

Yet 1st July 2020 came and went with no extension to the transition period.


This deadline for putting in place an extension was not a mere omission – the sort of thing a busy government may not have noticed in the rush of events.

The  failure to put in place the extension was a deliberate decision of the United Kingdom.

On 12 June 2020, the cabinet minister responsible for negotiations with the European Union announced proudly:

‘We have informed the EU today that we will not extend the Transition Period. The moment for extension has now passed.’

Had he perhaps not realised there was a pandemic on at the time?

Remarkably, the following sentence of the minister’s statement expressly stated that the decision not to extend was in view of the pandemic:

‘At the end of this year we will control our own laws and borders which is why we are able to take the sovereign decision to introduce arrangements in a way that gives businesses impacted by coronavirus time to adjust.’

The United Kingdom government promoted the decision not to extend as a news story.

The deadline was even the topic of direct discussion between the prime minister and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission on 15 June 2020:

‘The Parties noted the UK’s decision not to request any extension to the transition period. The transition period will therefore end on 31 December 2020, in line with the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.’

The United Kingdom government knew the extension deadline was about to pass, and the government decided deliberately to not have an extension with full awareness (and explicit mention) of the ongoing pandemic.

Getting Brexit done’ was more important.

Populism prevailed over prudence.


This option to extend the transition period was the only way to do so that was written into the exit agreement.

This means that, on the face of it, there is no way there can be an agreement now to extend the transition period.

The opportunity to extend the agreement would appear to have come and gone.

That said, there may be other ways of an extension – as set out by Georgina Wright and others in this report by the estimable Institute for Government.

And few legal feats are beyond the wits of clever European Union and United Kingdom government lawyers in a crisis.

But such an alternative approach to extension would not be easy nor  can it be instant – it would be an elaborate patch and workaround.

For such an extension to put in place now – ten days before the end of the transition period, with the Christmas holidays and a weekend in the middle – would require extraordinary political goodwill and legal ingenuity.

And all to have the same effect as the opportunity squandered by the government in June 2020.


The decision to ‘cancel Christmas’ was, as this blog set out yesterday, not one any government would have wanted to make.

The fundamental mistake of this government was not to prepare people for the possibility – indeed probability – of this decision.

Days before the decision was made, the prime minister was loudly deriding the leader of the opposition on this very point.

Just click  below and watch and listen.

(Alongside this banality, the Secretary  of State for Education was also threatening a London council with a high court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.)


Had the prime minister and others been acting responsibly, and in the public interest, and given it appears that the government had known about the new coronavirus variant for some time, there should not have been derision of the opposition for the possibility of ‘cancelling Christmas’.

A prime minister and government acting responsibly, and in the public interest, would have been explaining that the public and businesses had to brace themselves for the possibility – indeed probability – of such restrictions and to prepare accordingly.

But the prime minister went for easy claps and cheers instead.

Again, populism prevailed over prudence.


Yesterday, this story was published by the government-supporting media.

The ugly truth, however, is that every single significant error in Brexit and with coronavirus has been because of the UK government ‘playing to its domestic audience’.

Every single one.


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21 thoughts on “How a government capable of ‘cancelling Christmas’ did not extend the Brexit transition period – or why populism keeps prevailing over prudence”

  1. The ugly truth, however, is that every single significant error in Brexit and with coronavirus has been because of the UK government ‘playing to its domestic audience’. ABSOLUTELY!!!

  2. Dear David,

    how does (your) good sense prevail against politicians’ self interest ?

  3. If this is not criminal negligence hen the definition of criminal negligence needs to be extended to cover Johnson’s multiple, repeated and utter failures

    Virus cases doubling in a week, not only do we not have a deal, we don’t even have a “no-deal” with no time to prepare for this shambles of a no-man’- land , our borders closed – even the borders within the steadily more dis-United Kingdom. Her Majesty is not supposed to interfere in politics but am sure she does not want to see the break up of the UK so carelessly and foolishly foisted on us by this lying, useless shyster. Please Ma’am, get on the blower and tell him to go.

  4. I was amusing myself the other day with recalling the infamous GATT Article 24 ramblings by Shankar Singham, Rees-Mogg, etc and how that meant we could keep single market access for 10 years, and hoping that an interviewer somewhere will remember to call them out on that nonsense.

    But are we now in a situation where the actual intent of this provision could be used to implement the parts of the current deal that are agreed, and buy some more time (subject to both sides agreeing of course)?

  5. “The ugly truth, however, is that every single significant error in Brexit and with coronavirus has been because of the UK government ‘playing to its domestic audience’. Every single one.”

    BUT half the country is not the domestic audience our Esteemed Leaders seem to imagine.

  6. The government is dead. It is rotten to the core. It may be time, and I say this with sorrow and regret to consider whether a coup d’etat at least needs to be thought about. This situation cannot continue

    1. But continue, it will. Just as damage to the nation continues to accrue. Only when the Tory party decides to pull the rug on Johnson will change come about. And what change? I cannot think of a more frightening prospect than Gove, the most obvious choice.

        1. You’re right about Sunak being only slighter better. Anyone but Gove. But assuming Sunak doesn’t share Johnson’s pathological desire to be liked at least he’d probably throw out the majority (all?) of those cabinet members – a discredit to themselves as well as the country – who were appointed by virtue of their loyalty and uncritical acquiescence.

          1. I hope you’re right that Sunak would throw out the derisory dross but I don’t think it’s clear yet what kind of thinker, or feeler, he is.

          2. I am afraid Soapy Sunak, the conman in plain sight, has decided to cast himself in the role of a cheeseparing, 19th century Chancellor of the Exchequer.

            He is determined to balance the books.

            The levelling up budget for Oop North and the newly materialised English Midlands amounts to a paltry £4bn, mostly for vanity capital projects for Johnson to pose in front of on their official opening day.

      1. Jeremy Hunt was the runner up in the Tory leadership race. He is relatively untainted as he has not served in the present government. The Tories could do it very quickly if they were so minded. But is this the time to make a change, right in the middle of a crisis?

        1. While Johnson can’t be held responsible for Covid itself, and some mistakes would have been an inevitability regardless, this particular full-blown crisis is entirely of his own making. Given his failure to learn from any single one of the countless delays and missteps, I fear we’re only in for more “world beating” this and “mightily prospering” that. His misplaced optimism and I think genuine libertarianism mean he’s unsuitable to lead. Crisis or no crisis.

      2. option 1: a greater liar will succeed
        option 2: JRM will become boss
        option 3: join the USA

    2. Johnson became prime minister on 24 July 2019 and his party won a substantial majority on 12 December last year, largely I would say on the back of Johnson’s simple populist slogans and boosterism, and a hope that he would just make it all go away so we could move on with our lives. Enough voters liked him more than the other guy, and, like Trump, many voters discounted concerns about his moral character, and listened to what he said he would do (or what they hoped he would do) rather than what he has actually done in the past.

      What happened? Events, but too many own goals caused by Johnson failing to take a decision early enough and waiting until he was forced into the only remaining option. He is blown around by events, rather than trying to lead and shape them. He doesn’t appear to have any strong beliefs, apart from wanting to be liked. There is a decent chance he can stick around until vaccinations are widespread enough to release pent up economic demand and a semblance of good times returns perhaps later in 2021, perhaps in 2022. Or his party may realise before then that he has become an electoral liability, not an asset. Perhaps he may realise he loves the title (achievement unlocked) but hates the job, and will return to what he does best, which is juvenile but well paid journalism.

      One thing the Conservatives are good at is winning elections. And if that means changing the leader, so be it. Even if there is civil unrest (and I hope there is not, but it is becoming a realistic possibility) there is almost no chance of the ruling party changing before 2023.

      The problem for the Conservatives is that the cupboard of talent is so bare. Gove? Raab? Hancock? Williamson? Shapps? Rees-Mogg? Truss? Patel? Sunak? Or a change of direction to someone like Hunt? And who would want to take the poisoned chalice until, the two most pressing problems are moving into the past? Is there a Churchill figure?

  7. Both the May and Johnson governments gave (unnecessary) fixed dates for parts of the Brexit process that were clearly at risk of becoming hostages to fortune. Presumably they did it to pacify the Tory party hard Brexiteers. But they then seemed to extend the scope of those commitments into being promises to the electorate. For some reason the Johnson government seems to have pinned its credibility to these dates, with no U-turns – yet. But with all the foreseen consequences.

  8. david

    “The ugly truth, however, is that every single significant error in Brexit and with coronavirus has been because of the UK government ‘playing to its domestic audience’.

    Every single one.”

    Was it not always thus? :-(


    1. No, as DAG has comprehensively shown in his many first-rate analyses. There have been, and are, and I hope will be, far better governments than this one. Not every PM picks a bunch of unbendy bananas to run the show!

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