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- Extreme “Seinfeld” voice: What is the dealllll with Brexit?
- More than three years ago, citizens of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum by a small margin in favor of leaving the European Union.
- Since then, UK’s parliament, under the leadership of first Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson, has attempted to strike up a plan that will allow the UK to do so without completely decimating its economy and threatening its food supply – but many are skeptical that will happen.
- Before May resigned, she and the EU came up with an October 31 deadline for the UK to leave the European Union. If a deal can’t be struck by that date, the UK will have a “no-deal Brexit.”
- Frustration and anxiety over the looming deadline has begun boiling over. Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson was shocked to see Philip Lee, a member of his own Conservative party, dramatically throw his support to the Liberal Democrats by walking across the parliament floor while Johnson was mid-speech.
- So where does that leave us? Insider’s UK politics editor Adam Bienkov breaks down our most burning Brexit questions.
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Brexit – the UK’s garbled and not-quite-yet-executed decision to leave the European Union – has been a constant source of consternation and concern for UK politicians across the political spectrum. In the past three years since the initial Brexit referendum took place – in which Leave inched out a 52% win over Remain voters – Prime Ministers Theresa May and now Boris Johnson, have been struggling to come up with an exit plan that will have the fewest repercussions.
So far, they’ve failed to come to a consensus – even with an October 31 deadline looming. This may lead the UK toward a “no-deal exit,” requiring the UK to leave the EU overnight, without a trade deal or other protections in place.
Insider’s UK politics editor Adam Bienkov, who covers the exhaustive world of the parliament from our London base, spoke with us about what Americans need to know about Brexit.
Insider: Imagine I’m an American who’s just woken up from a years-long nap, Sleeping Beauty-style. It’s 2016, and Donald Trump is campaigning for president, and perhaps even more strange, there’s a literal boat fight between conservative politician Nigel Farage and rock singer Bob Geldof on the Thames River over something called Brexit. Explain it to me like I’m five.
Bienkov: Ha. Well, it’s been quite a ride over the past few years. Before Brexit, lots of British people saw themselves as having a relatively stable (and frankly quite dull) political system compared to other parts of the world, including America.
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When I first started covering UK politics I can remember a major controversy about a potential tax on pastries, which literally dominated the national conversation for days, if not weeks. A typical day in UK politics now involves things like questions about possible food and water shortages, multiple Cabinet resignations, mass street protests, and the general public marching on Buckingham Palace.
We’re all a bit confused about how we ended up here
Insider: Brexit really began with a 2016 UK-wide referendum where slightly less than 52% of citizens voted to leave the European Union, while 48% voted to remain. Two questions: Do you think people understood what they were voting for? And, if so, what’s the benefit of a Leave position?
Bienkov: I don’t think many on either side of the argument really understood what they were voting for. Opinion polls before the referendum showed that the issue of the UK’s relationship with Europe was something that concerned only a very small fraction of the UK population. It’s now something that utterly dominates everything and is stopping any of the many other problems facing the country from even being discussed.
For Remain voters, Brexit became as much of a cultural issue as a political one, with lots more British people now identifying as Europeans than ever before. For those voters, a vote to Remain was as much about showing how they were comfortable with modern, multicultural Britain as it was about the economic case for it.
For Leave voters the main issue was immigration and Brexit will potentially allow the UK government to place greater controls on how many people come to live and work here from the EU. However, whatever happens with Brexit in the short term, we will inevitably end up with some sort of trade deal with the EU and like all trade deals, it’s likely to include provisions to make immigration easier.
Insider: The Brexit Leave vote took place more than three years ago. Can you sum up what’s happened between then and now?
Bienkov: Britain entered into a two-year negotiation period to decide the terms on which we would leave the EU. The then-prime minister Theresa May called a general election in 2017 in order to secure enough members of parliament to pass any deal she ultimately agreed with the EU. However, this backfired when she lost her government’s majority – and any slight hope she still had of getting parliament to ratify a deal.
With no majority in parliament and a set of negotiating aims which were all but impossible to agree with the EU, the unity of the Conservative government gradually fractured away until the point now where Boris Johnson is the leader of a minority government and the whole government is just days away from collapse and the only achievable Brexit is to leave without a deal.
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Insider: The October 31 deadline for a no-deal Brexit is less than two months away. Johnson began this week by trying to call an election. Why?
Bienkov: Johnson needs an election before Brexit for several reasons:
- The only achievable Brexit with this current parliament is a no-deal Brexit. This is likely to go very badly and the government will be punished by voters for it. Going to the polls before that happens avoids that.
- If Britain does leave without a deal, then that won’t be the end of it. We will still need to agree on a deal, only we will have lost what little negotiating advantage we had [with the EU]. That means we will get a bad deal and Johnson will be blamed for it. Again, far better to have an election before that happens.
- Going to the polls before Brexit also puts the opposition Labour party in a difficult spot. Labour voters are split on Brexit with a significant minority in favor of leaving the EU. If Johnson can go to the polls promising to take Britain out of the EU no matter what, then he believes he could win that election through picking up disaffected Labour voters
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Insider: Gotcha. So what the heck happened yesterday?
Bienkov: So Johnson has promised to leave the EU with or without a deal by October 31. MPs believe (probably rightly) that this means he is trying to take Britain out without a deal and are determined to stop him from succeeding. Yesterday they passed a motion which will allow them today to take control of the agenda in parliament and pass a law which will, in theory, ban him from taking Britain out without a deal. Johnson’s response is to try and call a general election in order to regain a majority in parliament in order to overturn that law.
And then there’s what happened with Conservative MP Philip Lee.
The moment defecting Tory MP Phillip Lee takes his seat with the Liberal Democrats, leaving Boris Johnson's government with no working majority
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) September 3, 2019
The House of Commons is split into two halves with one side of green benches being the government’s and the other side of green benches being the opposition. Lee was very unhappy with Johnson’s Brexit plan to take Britain out without a deal. So he chose to “cross the floor” while Johnson was addressing MPs, as a symbolic method of resigning.
Insider: There was also a lot of shouting directed toward MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who’d taken to lounging across a bench in a pose of exaggerated boredom.
Bienkov: Jacob Rees-Mogg is a cartoon-like aristocrat-turned-politician who is either deeply loved, or deeply hated, depending on your political persuasion. He is best known for his stereotypical aristocratic accent and the fact that he goes campaigning on the doorstep with his nanny.
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Insider: Where does all of this leave Boris Johnson? What comes next?
Bienkov: Well, he’s currently in a very difficult position. He has a majority of minus 43 in parliament; a party that is deeply divided; and other political parties on both the left and right who are taking voters away from him.
However, the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s own ratings are even worse than Johnson’s, and liberal pro-European voters are heavily split between Labour and the other opposition parties, whereas Johnson has at least partially succeeded in re-uniting the Brexit vote behind the Conservatives. Winning a majority in the election still looks like a big ask for him, but there is a decent chance that he will succeed.
Insider: So the Brexit saga continues, and the UK edges ever closer to a no-deal Brexit this fall.
Bienkov: Basically the only thing that’s certain is that we’re due for lots more uncertainty in the months and years to come. British politics is in a big mess, and unlike in the US where you can change your entire political outlook with just one election, it’s very difficult to see how the problems on this side of the Atlantic will be solved any time soon.
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