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Five years after the Brexit referendum, we have an imperfect deal from an imperfect PM, but I’m still sure we made the right call

The referendum on leaving the EU still dominates British politics. It was the most significant event of the last half-century, resulting in two general elections, ousting two PMs and transforming the political map of the UK.

I have to admit that I didn’t think we would win the Brexit referendum. I believed it had come too soon. I had always been convinced that the UK would one day leave the European Union, but I thought it would occur at some point in the 2020s. On the night of the referendum, I was at the national count in Manchester. Us Brexiteers were initially quite glum, believing we had just missed out. However, when the results started coming in from around the country, we realised that something was happening. Areas we thought would have voted Remain were being returned with sizeable Brexit majorities. Also, in the areas where Remain prevailed, they did so with smaller majorities than expected.

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FILE PHOTO. Thousands of protesters gather in Parliament Square as they take part in a March for Europe, through the centre of London, to protest against Britain's vote to leave the EU. © AFP / Niklas HALLE'N; (inset) Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. © AFP / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI.
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In the event, the majority for Brexit was 1.3 million. That event, which took place five years ago today, has since dominated British politics, starting the following day with the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. I was as shocked as anyone by his resigning. In hindsight, however, I suppose he had no choice. I always thought that he had made a mistake leading the Remain campaign. He should have stood back and taken a neutral position, just as Harold Wilson did during the first European referendum in 1975. Cameron made himself the figurehead of Remain and he rightly went down with his ship. With him gone, in stepped Theresa May.

I was never that enthusiastic about May. She had been a quiet Remainer during the Brexit referendum campaign and her record as Home Secretary was average at best. However, a lot of people were initially fooled by her. She played the game and upped the Eurosceptic rhetoric to heights not seen from any Tory prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. Political pundits in the UK were even talking of ‘Mayism’ as a new ideology. She was so convinced of her own popularity that she foolishly called a general election. Hubris is a dangerous trait in politicians, and it came back to haunt her. The general election of 2017 was a disaster for Brexit and for May personally. The Conservative majority evaporated, and she was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland to prop up her government. From this point, she was a lame-duck prime minister leading a minority government.    

May did continue to ‘talk the talk’, saying that “no deal was better than a bad deal”, but she failed to ‘walk the walk’. Brussels knew that she was politically wounded and hamstrung by a pro-Remain Parliament, thus they were not going to give her anything of substance. The result was that the deal she came back with was not Brexit at all. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it was a betrayal. In her determination to keep Britain “closely aligned” with the EU, she presented a halfway-house deal, with Britain continuing to follow EU rules without having the ability to frame them. It was probably worse than simply remaining. 

Her removal from office was essential if real Brexit was going to be achieved, and for that we have Nigel Farage to thank. His Brexit Party, which stormed to victory in the 2019 European elections, was the ultimate protest by people who felt betrayed by May. With the Tories reduced to a 9% vote share, she had no choice but to fall on her sword. Enter Boris Johnson.  

Johnson arrived in 10 Downing Street with an optimistic message: he was going to return to the EU and get a better deal. He was also the antithesis to the dour May, and a Brexiteer, albeit a late-adopter. However, Johnson found the Remain-dominated Parliament was just as determined to wreck his deal as it was May’s. It consistently vetoed his proposals and, in turn, posited countermeasures that tied his hands when negotiating with Brussels.   

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The behaviour of British MPs was not just a national but a global embarrassment. Their refusal to accept the democratic will of the people brought shame on our institutions, and the world looked on with justified incredulity. This collective lunacy was encapsulated by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, which called for a second referendum. I remember thinking at the time, how dare they call themselves the People’s Vote, because the people had already voted. Also, who did they think voted the first time? Monkeys, perhaps? They were bitter Remainers who were prepared to damage our democracy, potentially irreparably, because they failed to get their own way.    

The intransigence of Remainer MPs ensured that Johnson needed a deal with the EU, and he needed one fast. Thus, it was rushed and botched, particularly regarding Northern Ireland. We are living with the consequences of that rushed deal today. The Northern Ireland Protocol was a massive error and has led to the province becoming semi-detached from the rest of the UK. It also has the potential of reigniting the Troubles, which is the last thing any of us wants to see happen. In many ways, however, I do not blame Johnson – responsibility rests instead with the MPs who tied his hands, forcing him to rush things through at breakneck speed.

Armed with a flawed deal, Johnson was determined to go over the heads of the MPs and appeal to the country. Campaigning under the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson surpassed all expectations and was returned with a majority of 80 seats, smashing the Labour Party in the process. The general election revealed the extent to which Brexit had recalibrated British politics, as the Tories won Brexit-supporting, Northern, working-class, traditionally Labour seats. Indeed, many of those MPs who point-blank refused to implement the Brexit referendum result were jettisoned from Parliament. Revenge was timely and sweet.

So, where are we today? Discounting the Northern Ireland Protocol, which will have to be revisited or ripped up, the deal is largely acceptable. Brexit Britain is bounding ahead, making trade deals all over the globe. Last week, it was Australia, and I hear that a New Zealand deal is soon going to be in the offing. None of the ridiculous scare stories spread by the Remainers have come to fruition: the UK’s economy did not tank, trade deals have not proved impossible, and our beaches have not become junkyards. But as I wrote last week, Brexiteers must not be complacent. There are signs that hardline Remainers are waiting and ready to launch a rejoin-the-EU campaign.

To sum up, the deal we have right now is not perfect, but few things in politics are. I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, it was the best we could hope for. But let us not be downhearted about it – Britain is certainly better off out of the EU and can now look forward to a future as a free and independent country. And I, for one, am proud that I played my part in getting us here.     

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