Even if the vote isn’t until 2022, Britain will not have completed the exit process by the time it arrivesby Peter Kellner / May 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Until last week, Theresa May had a cunning plan. Well before the next election, the drama of Brexit would be over. The transition to post-Brexit life would be completed by December 2020. Business would have 18 months to adjust to it. Tory divisions over Europe would have healed. Life would be back to normal, and so would politics. The prime minister could claim to have overcome the toughest challenges facing any recent British government. If Labour were still led by Jeremy Corbyn, she hoped to contrast her calm stewardship with his dangerous extremism.
That plan is now dead. In order to keep the Irish border completely open, the cabinet agreed last week that the UK will abide by certain European Union regulations well beyond December 2020. If the rest of the EU agrees—and that is, of course, a huge “if”—we shall have in effect two transition phases before Brexit is fully implemented. Let us call them T1 and T2. During T1, up to December 2020, daily life will be largely unaffected; during T2, the UK will have more freedom to go its own way, but we shall still have to obey many customs union and single market rules. T2 will last until technology comes to the rescue: allowing trading and business regulations to diverge, without the need for cameras, customs posts or any other infrastructure at the border.
Brexiteers hope that T2 will be short-lived. The same hopes were expressed when Norway joined the single market in January 1994. It was intended as a brief arrangement ahead of Norway joining the EU as a full member. However, that November, Norwegians voted in a referendum NOT to join the EU. More than 23 years later, the “temporary” single market relationship lives on. For the UK, T2 might be another “temporary” arrangement that lasts far longer than anybody expected. At best the border-dissolving technology will be unavailable until well into the next parliament.
This means that Brexit will affect, and possibly dominate, the next election. The future rules and tariffs affecting British business will be uncertain. The durability of T2 could itself be a major election issue, with the Tories divided over how long it should last. Meanwhile, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP may well be arguing either for keeping T2 for the long-term, or…