The fundamental problem of Brexit is that a complex and slow task has been treated as easy and to be done at speed

10th December 2020

Three photographs summarise perfectly the course of the Brexit negotiations.

Few people will claim that the negotiations for the terms of the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union and then for the terms of the future relationship have gone perfectly, or even well.

Is there a single cause for this?

Some would say that Brexit in and of itself could never have gone well – that for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was a project that would always have ended badly.

That Brexit was misconceived to begin with.


But a Brexit done slowly and gradually, over several years, with full acknowledgment of how complicated an exercise would have been possible (even if not desirable).

Also possible would have been a Brexit where the United Kingdom had properly worked out what it wanted from departure before starting the exit process.

But these things did not happen.


For me, the most fundamental problem with Brexit is not so much the principle of departure but the constant underestimation by the United Kingdom government of what would be involved in a member state unravelling over 45 years of entwined law and policy.

The task was always going to be complex, and it was not one which could be done at speed.

But those in charge of United Kingdom policy have treated the task as if it were simple – David Davis winging it, Theresa May believing it would all be as easy as when she opted in and out of European Union policy areas as home secretary, and the slogans and bravado of Boris Johnson.

Taking back control, Brexit means Brexit, get Brexit done.

Of course, the terms of Article 50 itself did not help in this respect – with its envisaged brisk two year period – but this period was capable of extension, and indeed it was extended.

There was also the somewhat artificial distinction between the exit agreement and the agreement for the future relationship, and it would have been much better if there had been one overall negotiation and agreement.

Yet even taking those process points into account, the Brexit exercise would still have been botched because the United Kingdom government had not properly prepared and thought-through its Brexit policy before embarking on departure.


Perhaps Brexiters thought – not without good reason – that any delay would mean a Brexit denied.

And so, unless Brexit was done at speed, it would not be done at all.


But a Brexit delayed and maybe not done at all would have been preferable to this botched Brexit.

The complexity of Brexit will not go away because it is ignored and the process done at undue speed – the problems will just manifest themselves differently.

Brexit will never ‘be done’ – at least not for the rest of the 2020s.

Brace, brace.


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54 thoughts on “The fundamental problem of Brexit is that a complex and slow task has been treated as easy and to be done at speed”

  1. I feel that the fundamental problem is that all the Brexit factions wanted different things. And many were prepared to lie about what they wanted, too – there was never any possibility of having exactly the same rights and access from outside the EU as within the EU. As with all revolutions, Brexit has ended up being won by the extreme faction, the people that just want to watch the world burn, and hang the consequences, while those who wanted a moderate solution that would compromise with Remainers (now more than half of the electorate) have been totally silenced. Good luck, UK – you’re going to need it.

  2. Excellent article. I recall at the start of Brexit that the British civil service advertised for staff to lead the process. Given the important of the project, I expected attractive salary and benefits for the positions. Total wrong, salary was at the floor especially in London. No wonder it has been such a mess.

  3. David – the points you make have been made many times before, so much so that they’re beginning to sound like a populist rant – that the truth which is blindingly obvious to us, the people, is being ignored by stupid and out-of-touch politicians.

    It’s Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

    But do you really think Hanlon’s razor applies? Or is there indeed a genuine objective to build an invincible executive, able to offer absolute protection to its supporters legally, and unlimited rewards to them financially, in ways incompatible with EU membership?

    1. Perhaps this is what a coup looks like in Britain. Gentlemanly and outwardly civilised but actually vicious. Johnson’s behaviour, like Trump’s, has revealed the weakness of democracies that rely on convention and protocol to elicit good behaviour from their leaders.

      1. That is why, both countries’ travails since 2016 have been fascinating, esp. from a German/Russian/Chinese (Adolf/Joseph/Mao) point of view.

        Everything else is just a side show or – at best – a very nice “green screen”.

  4. I don’t think this is a rant, but it’s preaching to the converted. If we get No Deal it has to be brought home that this is the doing of Johnson’s Government and the ERG. How do we do that?

      1. “I’m not very confident from the speech made by the British prime minister in the House of Commons today. I think there is a failure to understand, which perhaps is a failure of Brexit at the very outset, if you choose to leave, there are consequences, particularly where that country wants to stay part of the single market,” she added on the chances of a trade deal”.

        – from Mairead McGuinness, reported in Reuters…

        ranting/preaching/reasoned argument…it’s all the same – they were never going to listen.

        For what it’s worth, it’s still important for those of us who don’t support a hard Brexit to hear the reasoned arguments, even if they are actively ignored by the headbangers

        1. indeed, a boulder thrown into a pond creates a massive problem for the pond

      2. If you are preaching then it is with sweet reason and not hell fire.

        And I have experienced hell fire preaching at a Roman Catholic funeral so I feel confident that I know what I am talking about.

    1. I gather a Tory MP has been waffling on about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a mostly bloodless affair, in the Daily Telegraph. I imagine some of the Telegraph’s readers will remember the event like it was only yesterday.

      There are many professional historians amongst the ranks of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the House of Commons nowadays. May be one of them would like to explain to this chap that the Tory Party was on the losing side of the argument in 1688.

      They might go further and observe that the Conservative Party came into existence in 1834 with Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto. Peel argued therein that the party should seek to conserve the good and reform the bad.

      A very civilised approach to politics. One may reasonably debate what is good or bad and the way in which to reform the bad without too much sturm and drang. A very appealing modus operandi to those of us who do not think that the seeking of compromises and the building of consensuses in politics is inherently suspect behaviour.

      One hopes, may be naively, that we will learn the lesson of these times and that the majority will recapture and fortify the soggy middle ground. We will, of course, have to drain the bog, first.

      Incidentally, I have a dreadful feeling that the Bill of Rights of 1689 is about to displace Magna Carta, did she die in vain, as the legal authority to be invoked by those opposing mask wearing and similar …

      1. 1688 may have been pretty bloodless in England, much less so in Ireland and Scotland.
        Remember the Boyne (the Irish do) as well as Killiekrankie and Cromdale (Jock will refresh your memory if you buy him a pint).

        1. The Battle of the Boyne was in 1690.

          The Battles of Killiecrankie and Cromdale were in 1689 and 1690, respectively.

          I chose very carefully to refer specifically to 1688.

          There were Irish troops on both sides at the Boyne.

          There were Scottish troops on both sides at Killiecrankie and Cromdale.

  5. As an ardent remainer I keep asking myself what we did wrong to bring this on ourselves. My answer is that by belittling the Brexiters as stupid we made a fundamental mistake. Calling people stupid only entrenches them in their views and attracts more support to them. It would have been far better to ensure that the financial benefits of EU membership were distributed fairly rather than mainly to the already well off.

    1. It happens in most EU countries that Brussels is blamed for unpopular decisions even when a) Brussels had no role in the decision or b) When the member state agreed to the measure.

      After years of hearing such stories is it no wonder people voted for Brexit.

      1. I totally agree with you, it has been all too easy for politicians to Blame unpopular but sensible policies on the EU (eg energy saving appliances/ lightbulbs) and then it is picked up as clickbait by the press.

    2. The beneficiaries of European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund monies were, for example, fairly often, directly or indirectly, the poorest in our society.

      There are plenty of blue plaques around the place and the EU logo had to go on any paperwork for projects receiving European funding.

      Perhaps Remain, in part failed, because some of those campaigning for it were unfamiliar with how, for example, ERDF and ESF funds were allocated within the countries and regions of the UK and before bids were invited for said funds?

      I am a tad tired of people seeking one reason why Remain failed or Leave succeeded. However, may be part of the problem with how the Remain Campaign was executed was down to not seeking to empathise with Leave voters and start working on them from there. And we did not need to win over all of them. Leave have been perfectly happy with winning the support of a minority of the electorate.

      I do think we should have had more faith in the Poor Bloody Infantry. I think some of us, myself included, were too patronising, too condescending, too quick to think Leave voters would not appreciate and understand the connection between, say, Auschwitz and the EU, if we had took the trouble to discuss it with them.

      I really ought to have known better. My little Grandad, my Mom’s dad, spent five years, after Dunkirk, on an extended walking tour of Poland between 1940 and 1945, courtesy of the Wehrmacht.

      My unassuming Grandad on his retirement went back to Poland and he visited Auschwitz. He never blamed the German people for what he had endured during his five years of captivity.

      There is no such thing as an ordinary person. I think some of us lost sight of that, too, during the Referendum Campaign. We should have done the other thing and engaged in conversation, spoken with and listened to people about our shared past.

      We should not have assumed that the left behind, or whatever generic label the Commentariat had come up with that week for the lumpen proletariat, would not have similar feelings and thoughts as the rest of us.

      I am proud of what my family and my party did in Second World War in the fight against fascism. If the Labour Party lasts a thousand years then its support for Churchill, its strengthening of his resolve in May 1940 to carry on the fight against Nazi Germany, in the face of stiff opposition from some senior Tories, will always be one of its finest hours.

      I seem to have gone all Churchillian.

      And I am sure an overwhelming majority of those who voted Leave share my pride, although probably not necessarily in the Labour Party.

      I am also convinced many of those people, the people whose forebears bore the brunt of the fighting, would agree, “Never again!”

      We failed to look for common ground and we never seem to have been bothered to try and turn the guns of the Leave Campaign on them.

      Incidentally, if you want to know what sparked my ramblings, in November 2017, then read Simon Cowley’s Twitter thread that I screen grabbed and made into a blog.

      Simon, an ordinary chap he says, campaigned and voted for Leave. His thread explains why he did so and why he had changed his position by late 2017.

      He was a supporter of the People’s Vote Campaign.

      I found little or nothing in his thread to disagree with, but then, Reader, I have a confession to make. I, like Simon, was born into the white working class …

      1. “We should have done the other thing and engaged in conversation, spoken with and listened to people about our shared past.”

        A key insight.

  6. “the Brexit exercise would still have been botched if the United Kingdom government had properly prepared and thought-through its Brexit policy before embarking on departure.”

    Do you actually mean this, or should ‘still’ be replaced by ‘might not’? Sorry if I’m being dense, but it isn’t clear to me, from the sense of the article, whether you believe the process was doomed by its very nature (which the above phrase seems to imply, but which is not a view you have advanced in other posts, I think) or whether you think that a competent and prepared government might have better managed – or at least not botched – the whole episode.

    For what it’s worth, my own view is that Brexit could never – will never – end well, but the May and Johnson governments, in their different ways, have succeeded in making the outcome far worse than even the most ardent Remainer could have forecast.

      1. Apologies: the email version was sent at 8.58 this morning and I checked to see if anyone else had highlighted the phrase before replaying at 9:34. I didn’t reread the whole post, however.

  7. The negotiations will fail because both sides want them to fail. Each for different reasons. In the case of the EU because it knows we will be back to the negotiating table by February, poorer, weaker and desperate for a trade deal under any terms. The UK because only no deal will satisfy the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ of the hard right and they need to be shown the consequences of their beliefs. Then the UK gets the very soft Brexit that frankly was and is the only game in town. Will we need a general election to agree to BINO, probably: will the PM try to delay this by exploiting the delays in the national vaccination programme caused entirely by the incompetence of his government, almost certainly. But by May this sorry excuse for a government and the even more sorrowful Brexit saga will be gone.
    So brace, brace but with hope

  8. I think it could have been managed if it had been thought through properly and negotiations had been conducted in a spirit of co-operation instead of confrontation on the UK side. I imagine we would have ended up with an EEA type arrangement, which while not as good as EU membership would have suited moderate Leavers and been grudgingly accepted by Remainers. It would have required Johnson to do what Cameron failed, and face down the ERG.

    But that is now water under the bridge, and the question is, what do we do in future?

  9. The fundamental method of nationalism/populism/tribalism is to simplify the world by making it simply somebody else’s fault – the EU, the immigrants, the refugees, anybody but looking in the mirror to see the real culprit. The current government lives by TWLs – Three Word Lies to sell this vicious simplification. Brexit was always going to be a dog’s dinner (or even an oven ready meal TWL if you like), where a simple, oft repeated lie met the complicated reality of the world.
    Johnson has spent his life creating one car crash after another then running off and, sadly, upwards. This latest, greatest car crash (either the thinnest of deals or, unbelievably, a no deal – he is perfectly able to let this happen as he doesn’t understand or even care about the consequences) will take a generation to mend.

  10. Part of the problem is Brexiters’ tendency to characterise anyone who points out the complexity involved in Brexit as ‘obstructive’ or ‘a Remoaner’. Particularly civil servants, who are going to have to implement the political imperatives. A good example, (apparently) is Sir Ivan Rogers. From what he has written since, it appears Rogers could have negotiated an effective Brexit quite well. But in pointing out the complexities, it seems he became some sort of enemy and was ousted.

  11. « But a Brexit done slowly and gradually, over several years, with full acknowledgment of how complicated… »
    Was it Lenin who coined the phrase ‘revolutionary moment’?
    The longer the process is allowed to drag on for, the more the complications become apparent, the greater the temptation to change one’s mind.
    Opinion polls already show a substantial majority thinks Brexit ‘a mistake’.
    Either they get it done (and they deserve no pity if they end up on the guillotine) or the forces of inertia will destroy them.
    Lenin clearly thought that a few million dead were a price worth paying. Brexiteers think the same way about the future of the UK and it’s prosperity.

  12. Perhaps the EU represents the final failure of overarching British foreign policy in Europe over the last half millennium or so – to divide and rule, playing different continental countries off against each other and switching sides as necessary to secure the interests of this little island. That approach does not work if the main players – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc. – remain together in one solid block.

    What is the alternative? The Empire is not there any more, and the Commonwealth while mostly friendly are not our puppets. Buccaneering Britain, pluckily plying its own trade as a pirate on the high seas, will be quickly squashed between the Scylla and Charybdis of the US and China.

    It is hard to see how this ends well, particularly when we have a procession of politicians lying through their teeth (Gove and Raab on the radio in successive days). We are reaching the point where simple slogans hit hard reality with a squelch.

    1. I am reminded of Sir Humphrey’s Classic explanation, in Yes Minister, that we went into the Common Market to dish the French.

      It didn’t work so we obviously have to leave n

    2. The third photo shows two EU representatives looking sharp and with an aura of being prepared, stood next to what appears to be a reluctant pair of undertakers assistants who’ve been woken in the middle of the night, and, sadly, it’s perfectly symbolic of the whole sorry saga.

    3. Maybe the only way to be fully aware of the new reality (why the recent announcement of an increase in defence spending etc.???) is a separation of ways : GB/UK becomes four independent states

  13. In case any of you are in doubt, I am a Europhile and see this episode as a national mistake of epic proportions – and one that will be the more quickly rectified, the worse it goes.

    That said, it is a Tory catastrophe. The vote was at their instigation, for their internal purposes. There was never a plan to deal with a “leave decision”. Since that point, what was supposedly a “national decision” has been driven purely through the partisan lens of what the Tory Party (thinks it) wants. A sane government would have backed a confirmatory referendum once a deal was outlined and the costs/benefits clear. It would have moved with cross-party involvement and the views of the devolved governments would have been sought and considered. None of this happened. It looks as if Bojo will save Starmer’s blushes since there will be no deal to vote through, but as Kinnock (Sr) said, Labour should not endorse any aspect of this or they will be forever tainted by it. The government of Johnson has not even bothered to engage in a damage limitation exercise – alas, it is not so much “brace, brace brace” as “banzai!” as they crash their planes onto enemy vessels that exist only in their fevered imagination.

  14. As speedy and unthought-through as the Referendum question itself, which was like asking, “English Literature. Yes or No?”

  15. David

    I agree with the general thrust of your comments, but would like to add the following.

    There was incredible haste to trigger Article 50 (Corbyn on the morning of 24th June 2016!) which duly happened long before the UK had had time to reflect on the meaning substance of the vote, consider as a nation what action to take and prepare itself accordingly.

    Advisory vote or not, there were no specific obligations on when and how to leave. In my view, if there really had to be a referendum, the vote should have been worded & interpreted as ‘permission to negotiate’, with the results of said negotiations then put to the Electorate for approval or dismissal.

    I have always been of the view the Leave side were so surprised to have won, they wanted not only to defend that victory at all costs, but to impose it as soon as possible. To the point where there was no going back, despite their lack of a specific plan of how to do so.

    This meant no reflections, no consultations, no setting up of any kind of cross-party commission to advise or deliver what was after all, a cross-party initiative, not an exclusively Tory one.

    An effectively led Opposition might at least have represented the almost 50% of the electorate who didn’t vote to leave, by committing itself unequivocally to a clearly thought-out and consistent alternative approach.

    Brexit always has been an incredibly multi-layered complex issue ‘decided’ by an over-simplified ballot question, and deliberately reduced to over-simplified slogans to keep the bandwagon rolling.

    As you rightly identify, this can only take us so far (too far?) and reality will kick in, in due course.

    I have no need to be proved ‘right’. I desperately want Brexit to succeed. But that does nothing to alter my opinion, based on experience, evidence & reason, that it will not.


    1. During the Referendum Campaign, the Labour Remain Campaign Team were asked by Corbyn’s office to move the start time of the daily Keep In Touch meetings from 8:30 to 9:30.

      Jeremy does not do early mornings.

      He was up at the crack of dawn on the morning after the poll to demand that Article 50 be invoked, pronto, along with, unsurprisingly, that other Man of the People, Nigel Farage.

      Prior to his tour of the studios, an e-mail was sent out from Corbyn’s office urging MPs to not lay into those in the party, who had campaigned for Leave, but to commend them for their work, instead.

      Corbyn did not at the same time thank the Labour Remain Campaign Team for their efforts. Efforts, he and Milne, in particular, had sought to undermine.

      Incidentally, Corbyn has actually denied ever calling for Article 50 to be triggered on that Friday morning.

      A claim echoed by some members of his cult, sorry, fan club.

      1. Corbyn’s demand that Article 50 be invoked immediately was picked up by all the media across the land. Very puzzling. Understandable though that he’d want to deny it.

        1. Corbyn was interviewed on TV outside the Houses doing just that. I’m not sure how he could deny it?

          Perhaps he was with Boris Johnson in Turkey at the time? Or at least being one?

  16. The way Brexit has been executed is almost as if they want to prove that it was always dreadful idea. Admittedly that does fall foul of Hanlon’s Razor as mentioned earlier.

    More likely there are a number of powerful interests that have aligned (not a conspiracy mind you) that are keen that the hardest Brexit is achieved, and BoJo and his Vote Leave government are merely useful idiots.

    Follow the money.

  17. Writing from Italy, as an Italian and convinced pro-EU European, I find the approach of this post (The fundamental problem of Brexit is that a complex and slow task has been treated as easy and to be done at speed) quite unacceptable as it introduces the concept that, had Brexit been dealt with intelligence, diligence and without the distortion of blatant lies, then it might have been admissible or perhaps even desirable.
    Of course, we are all much in disagreement with many EU institutions and the way they work (as an example, we accept losing the UK but are – or seem – happy to have Hungary and Poland in the club!). New ways, new ideas will have to be found to strengthen a united Europe that we Europeans want and are prepared to work for – that’s the way, not Brexit with its ignorance, lack of preparedness, arrogance, isolationism, imperial hubris, nostalgia, amnesia, demagoguery – all seasoned with a good dose of ontologically unexplainable sense of superiority.

    1. I think what David means is that Brexit could have been considerably less damaging, that’s all. In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: “If you’re going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”

      1. By its very definition, leaving the biggest single free market in the world to go it alone is as damaging as it could get. Unfortunately, British Exceptionalism lives on. We saw it last week in the response of a handful of Tory MPs after the vaccine announcement. Gloating, and treating being the first to distribute the vaccine as a competition which they’d won. Never mind it was developed in Germany by a couple of Turkish background immigrants, produced in Belgium by an American company. It should embarrass the whole of the UK.

  18. Faced with the consequences of their appalling mismanagement of Brexit, the Johnson government will be looking for somebody to blame. What are the chances they’ll pick a fight with the working class and then say it was all the fault of the trade unions? The process has already begun. Witness Chancellor Sunak freezing the pay of large numbers of public sector workers.

    Brexit is a sinister thing. Expect the same of the cover up process.

    1. The trades unions represent about 23.5% of those in work in the UK. A disproportionate number of those folk work in the public sector.

      Mind you, whenever has a minority group not been good for scapegoating?

  19. Brexit could never have gone well because it was built on deception: that 52% of those who voted all wanted one specific thing more than they wanted remain. If it were true, then Brexit would have consisted of finding that one thing and negotiating with the EU to get it – or as close to it as possible. But Brexiteers knew that there was no such thing. There were different groups wanting different things, and each knew that if they made the goal explicit, it would not be reached because it would be obvious it was something only a minority wanted. So they played a game of pushing for what they wanted while claiming that particular thing was the Will Of The People.

    Boris has now painted himself into a corner. He knows that Brexit is going to be a disaster, and that politicians are blamed for bad outcomes even if they did everything reasonable to avoid them (which he certainly didn’t). So he needs to create the perception that the result is not his fault. If he reaches any agreement, the result will be seen as a consequence of the agreement, and since it was his agreement it will be his fault. If he provokes the EU enough that there is no deal, he has a chance of portraying it as not his fault – hence the ridiculously unreasonable terms he wants from the EU.

  20. In 1979 England moved decisively to the Right, and never really showed much sign of ever regretting it. In 2019 a similar shift was reprised (with another discredited Labour leader proposing social democracy and being roundly rejected).

    So I respectfully suggest that the present state of affairs is, at heart, what voters want. The appeal of simple answers that require no thinking, perhaps? The losses are, to this constituency, merely collateral.

    I am grateful to Mr Green for his insights, which contributed to my decision to sell this year’s lamb crop early, to cash up in 2021, and to retire (and tour the great museums of Europe).

    1. I loathed Thatcher with the loathing that perhaps only a coal-miner’s child can muster, and she was the reason I left Britain as soon as I could, in 1996. I have never regretted that decision because I fear that Britain is a lost cause. Have a great museum tour.

  21. This may be irksome, but I’m not sure the bloke on the Clapham omnibus would consider something that has (so far) taken four and a half years to have been done ‘at speed’.

  22. From the start it has been a mistake to allow the expression ‘deal’ to signify what was sought. Most people’s biggest deal is a house deal. Brexit is of unprecedented size and complexity. Remainers, critics, commentators should have made a point of never using ‘deal’ but insisted on a more accurate formulation.

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