The government’s Brexit problems were foreseeable and foreseen – but ministers did not care and went ahead anyway

12th June 2021

Some things remain true even when they are said again, and again, and again.

One of these truths is that a Brexit done at speed was never going to go well – and that the government of the United Kingdom refusing extensions (either to the Article 50 period or the transition arrangements) was gross irresponsible idiocy.

Ministers placed themselves under self-inflicted pressure and suffered self-imposed weaknesses.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.

Another of these truths is that if the United Kingdom left the single market then one of three things would have to happen.

Either the United Kingdom would have to stay aligned with the single market anyway, or there would be a border on the Irish mainland, or there would be a border in the Irish Sea.

Any other possibility would be fanciful, if not fantasy.

A further truth is that there was little point going through with Brexit until and unless the United Kingdom had a settled and realistic view of what would then follow, in terms of its relationship both with the European Union and with the rest of the world, and in terms of what would happen in respect of Northern Ireland.

But on this basis the United Kingdom still does not know what we want, though we want something.

The only possible merit, from a Brexit point of view, of this rushed, muddled and directionless Breixt is that, if the process had lasted any longer, it may well have been reversed.

There may have been other Brexits possible in theory, but this was perhaps the only one possible given the politics before the 2019 general election.

This is not a merit from any sensible and objective view, but perhaps it explains why this botched Brexit did happen, instead of any other.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.


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25 thoughts on “The government’s Brexit problems were foreseeable and foreseen – but ministers did not care and went ahead anyway”

  1. You are right David. Sadly it has been predictable from the outset, from the day after the vote, that the Northern Ireland border problem was insoluble because the GFA was predicated on the UK, NI and Ireland all being part of the Single Market. Nobody ever contemplated that not being the case when the GFA was negotiated. Why would they? And sadly, it is still insoluble. It is hard to see anything good coming out of the current impasse.

  2. But this is all ‘grist to the permanent campaign’ mill, David.
    Imposition of import and export restrictions or increasing tariffs by the EU, will allow Johnson to campaign against ‘Jonny Foreigner’. The Conservatives won’t worry about Ireland, but they have historical form there.

  3. Hi David
    This is not a comment on today’s blog, more of a general comment about how much I enjoy and appreciate your style and concise, thorough lawyerly approach to a range of topics. Today’s is excellent.
    I have been trying to learn to write with your concision and gentle humour and according to a friend got close in the following short piece. At this point you may conclude I’m a madwoman to which I can only say possibly. By way of background, I ‘borrow a doggy’ (there’s a website, obvs) weekly which has been a real blessing during lockdown. Isla, the dog, provides a commentary of her day with me to a friend of mine, Marie, and we both enjoy the whimsy. Marie replies, and in one of her replies said she was considering growing a tail. Isla replied as follows:
    Marie I have given a lot of thought to your idea of growing a tail. This is what I think.
    You are a human.
    I am a dog
    Humans can do lots of things for me. Good things. Take me out. Feed me. Play with me. Cuddle me. Praise me. Talk to me.
    I like humans A LOT. Humans are my friends.
    Humans don’t have tails
    Dogs do.

    Marie feels you have been a strong influence in this well reasoned piece.

  4. It’s all too late to do any good but …

    Gordon Brown has very recently said he’s campaigning for a UK return to EU membership. As an “elder statesman” with huge personal standing and as a Scot, he’s probably the only UK politician with the status, independence and support necessary to lead any such attempt.

    Equally recently, Johnson described Brexit as a “lemon”.

    1. You write that Gordon Brown has considerable personal standing. That might be the case in some circles, however in Scotland he lost a lot of respect, following his intervention in the Independence Referendum in 2014.

  5. The most corrosive aspect of the Trump Presidency is how there was no, “body of the kirk” in the Republican party to contain his influence. Worse, Republicans are now bending backwards to follow his lead and game the system, democracy be damned. There was no bok, no silent majority of reasonable folk to make their weight of opinion and votes felt.
    Frost’s lazy approach to negotiation has less strategy than two schoolchildren swapping marbles: give me what I want, or I walk away. On the issue of the NI Protocol, johnson has fallen out with the EU & with the US. This will result in a de facto hard border around Ulster and jonny foriner be damned- all the more if he imposes sanctions in line with our prior agreement. The UK, or more specifically, England, will then have its Republican bok moment. johnson can continue to gull the many voters who have no day-to-day interest in politics, because he will then show that we are being unfairly treated by the EU. The test will be whether there are enough of the electorate sufficiently interested in politics, enough voters in England who are interested & reasonable folk, to clear their throats, shift their chairs and show the zealots among the Tories that they are in a minority and they are too strident?
    This question will be tested over the next couple of years because johnson is a chancer and will now see a way past his awkward looming choice on the way forward: is he for open market, or state intervention? Although he has always shown libertarian instincts, he saw the votes to be gathered in selling a story of levelling up by state spending and he had to publicly agree that hormone treated beef was not healthy. But he has time enough to damn jonny and cultivate a sense of isolation and grievance strong enough for him to then sell England a libertarian dream of sunny uplands in an Anglosphere of American, Australian and maybe South African & Indian trade deals. He was never one for detail and will already be plotting just how soon he can sign up. History beckons!

    1. “The test will be whether there are enough of the electorate sufficiently interested in politics…”

      Sadly, the answer I believe is ‘no’.

  6. The Uk has left both the Eu and its Single Market without any plan whatsoever notwithstanding that five years have passed.

    Trawling over the political embers is all well and good but it achieves little or nothing for hard working Brexit taxpayers looking forward.

    There were economic and social problems in the Uk pre 2016. Eu membership was not responsible for these and the odds are that Brexit will resolve nothing in the next five years.

    Readmission to the Eu is an unrealistic proposition for a generation or two at least so people will have to accept that the benefits of Eu membership have gone.

    The letter from Gareth Southgate is worth a read in full and not just a Press summary.

    It provides the basis for a future debate but half the country seem to want to close the debate down before it has even started and therein lies the problem.

  7. If you want to make sense of Brexit you have to see it through Tory eyes. The benefit is keeping Tory’s in power and keeping the gravy train flowing.
    Failure to achieve this will result in socialism getting into office at some point, meaning the gravy train will be stopped and the stash raided. With the Tory “aristocracy” being pilloried and the means of rule of the privileged elites exposed for what it is.
    For a true blue Tory, this outcome is far worse than any failed Brexit, even one which results in the break up of the Union.

  8. so no plan and no ideas. I would call that reckless gambling with other Peoples Money and Lives bit I guess that is the dark side of the ultimate flexibility given to HMG by your unwritten constitution( to do what ever it wants) a concept that seems dated to me but hey ho it is your Queens Gov not mine

  9. I’m sure you’re right about the reason for the rushed, botched Brexit. Part of the reason why Johnson in particular might be tempted to rush in order to secure the prime goal of getting out is that his experience of life has been that he can always talk his way out of trouble, or pay for issues to go away. His life has been more or less free of consequences for actions which would see most of us permanently excluded from polite society. So my theory is that he just assumed it would all turn out OK, and is now puzzled to find that Ireland is reluctant to leave the EU Single Market in order to avoid problems in NI. Which is the only solution to the NI issue which doesn’t involve Johnson taking one of the three unpleasant options you listed in the blog.

    It’s really quite odd that they aren’t willing to sacrifice a significant chunk of their economy for him. Don’t they know who he is?

  10. The thing about nationalists is that they can always blame the larger partner for all wrongs, real and imagined. Thus for the SNP, anything sub-optimal that happens in Scotland is the fault of “remote Westminster”, and for Farage and Co it was always “those unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”.

    I had always hoped that the one small silver lining of Brexit would be that, once complete, that particular excuse couldn’t be used any more. But no, it seems the government can still blame all its own problems on the EU. And half the electorate will believe them.


  11. May I suggest a fourth practical but unlikely solution? There is a border, but not in the brief crossing of the Irish Sea. The border could be in the North Atlantic Ocean/Celtic Sea. It’s a longer route and less busy. Both sides of that border are in the EU, which could resolve matters internally. The Republic would not need to annexe NI at all and the existing free passage between England and Ireland could continue. Simple, but I’m not a politician!

    1. What do you mean with a “North Atlantic Ocean/Celtic Sea” border? And “both sides of that border are in the EU”?

      Is that a roundabout way of saying there should be a border between Ireland and the continental EU? So the Irish should sacrifice their frictionless access to the single market to solve a self-imposed British problem? I really don´t think they are that enthusiastic about such a “solution”.

    2. So you suggest the Republic of Ireland should leave the Single Market and the EU customs union as otherwise there could be NO unchecked flow of goods between ROI and GB? So nothing more than the old Brexiters’ trick of suggesting the Irish should finally rejoin their former coloniser because….well the English know always best! In Germany during Nazi time suggestions like that were called „heim ins Reich holen“, for Brexiters one could translate that by “bring Ireland home“ to the glorious colonising empire. Well what an arrogant blinkered suggestion that would be, isn’t it?

    3. Sure, you are suggesting that in effect Ireland could choose to turn its back on the EU’s multinational single market and customs union, and rejoin the UK’s internal single market and customs union instead.

      But why would or should Ireland do that?

      On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it is about -5: there is much more chance of Ireland taking part of the UK away than Ireland choosing to throw its lot back in with the UK.

      1. Quite.

        Brexiteers sometimes point at Ireland and say she has thrown away her sovereignty to participate in the EU (actually they would probably use “it”, using “she” tends to be an Irishism).

        But all small states most negotiate their sovereignty to interact with the world. The current stark contrast between an association with on the one hand Brussels’ law-based, veto-rich regime and on the other London’s unpredictable and unprincipled self-centredness is as strong a vindication of Ireland’s international policy decisions as there has been in the entire century since independence. As far as Ireland is concerned Perfidious Albion, long thought a persecution myth, has risen from the dead.

        1. But all small states most negotiate their sovereignty to interact with the world.

          More to the point, it’s their sovereignty that allows them to choose to do that in the first place!

  12. Does the present HM Govt not remember the statement by Mr Peter Brooke………..

    “no selfish strategic economic interest in N.I”

    November 1990.

    And here we are in 2021 arguing over those very selfish strategic meat products………

  13. Ok, that Brexit would be a catastrophe – pursued as a goal by a political class that should be brought to trial for high treason – is now clear, I believe, to most reasonable people in the UK.
    However, what concerns us EU citizens, us Europeans, is that the Brexit damage (which, incidentally, affects mostly the British population), is that on the Northern Ireland Protocol Johnson’s propose breach Bruxelles may give in out of a mistaken appeasement – like Mr. Chamberlain waiving his successful deal at the Munich Conference.
    Because that would be totally against the EU interests.

  14. Breaking News! UK politicians discovered not to care and being unresponsible!

    Sorry to sound cynical, but if you understood how the Uk establishments works, as I do, you would not really bother making such statement.

    From my experience, corruption, laziness, disinterest and incompetence are all part and parcel of the UK – none more so in fact, than where it matters most – in the UK judiciary.

    The 6 dollar question is, ‘can anyone do anything about it?!’

  15. but if you understood how the Uk establishments works, as I do

    Honest question, John: why we should we assume that your knowledge of how UK establishments work, is any more rounded or based on the truth of the matter, than anyone else here?

    Speaking personally, before I took early retirement a couple of years ago, I had over 40 years of first-hand experience of “UK establishments” (governmental, legal and regulatory, at all levels), and my take-away impression doesn’t seem to match yours at all

    1. I didn’t say I knew better than everyone else (as suggested) but, by my experience (some 15 years), had drawn a conclusion, particularly about the UK legal and judicial system, and that is that it is largely perverse and obscene, and controlled by those with same characteristics. It is both ’rounded’ and ‘truthful’ because I had the first-hand experience.
      Your experience has led you to believe this could not be the case.
      Perhaps it is because (I assume) you were paid to work in the system – and now doubtless enjoy a bountiful pension – and I was a victim of it, that our views differ, and maybe your perspective has been coloured beyond the reality because of that?

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