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.


This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.