It’s not as if Britain hasn’t had long enough to think about it. After more than a decade of Eurosceptic argument and bickering, a referendum in June 2016 voted 52%-48% in favour of quitting the European Union.
Ever since, Parliament has argued about how to do it. The deadline for leaving having been extended three times, it sits, for the moment, at January 31 next year.
Before then, however, comes the small matter of a general election on December 12. The election is likely to be much more straightforward than the 2016 referendum battle that saw the Leave and Remain campaigns become a cross-party fight as MPs from all sides jumped the fence. That was the start of a donnybrook that led to the impasse over how to quit the EU.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, is hoping the vote will, once and for all, give him a mandate to exit, with or without a deal from the EU – a so-called “hard Brexit”.
Frankly, it can’t get much harder than it already is. Two prime ministers have already resigned because of Brexit; Parliament consistently blocks Johnson’s attempt to formulate a withdrawal process, which brought about the snap election; there is a public clamour for a second “Final Say” referendum on the subject; and one of the Prime Minister’s top advisers has now been ominously questioned about his connections to Russia.
That adviser is Dominic Cummings, campaign director for the Vote Leave campaign in that accursed referendum. You may know him from the movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, where he was played very accurately by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cummings, who now works in 10 Downing Street, has had questions raised about his time in Russia from 1994 to 1997 and his ongoing relationship with that country by someone who is described as being an “official-level whistleblower”.
Meanwhile, in a not entirely unrelated matter, besieged Boris is under fire for allegedly sitting on a parliamentary intelligence and security committee report into Russian interference in British politics and the 2016 referendum. The report is said to highlight Russian money being pumped into British politics, particularly into the Conservative Party, and an influence campaign it ran in 2016 to support Brexit.
It is a mess. An overwhelming number of economists warn a hard Brexit may well push up the price of food, gas, electricity, drugs, houses and imported goods from Europe, and result in travel restrictions for Britons on the Continent. Oh, yes, and reduce the real per capita income level in the UK.
Being ancient enough to remember the early 1970s, when New Zealand’s trade was cut adrift after Britain joined the EEC, and the resulting two decades of economic instability here, I cannot help but recite the dry, ironic line of actor Windsor Davies in the TV series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, “Oh dear. How sad. Never mind.”
This is an edited version of a column that was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.