It is over. At eleven o’clock this evening Britain formally leaves the European Union. Three years of uncertainty, of political chaos, of anger and distrust arrives at its conclusion.
In Parliament Square a band will play and Brexiteers will toast the moment that they have been waiting and working for. Quietly, some who do not share that sense of excitement will mourn what they feel they have lost. Somewhere in between will be the many for whom this moment will bring only a sense of mild relief – and the hope that a catharsis will now come and, with it, some calm.
In years to come, whatever the economic or social impact of Brexit, this period of British political history will serve as a case study for those who wish to study power and politics. Everybody made mistakes, gambled and overreached, misunderstood the information they received and miscalculated their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Theresa May mistook herself for a great campaigner and threw away her majority. So, later, did Jo Swinson. The People’s Vote campaign blew itself up at the critical juncture. Personalities mattered in that, of course. But so – too – did the internal incoherence of the coalition it sought to build, the differing political interests of its allies and the refusal of the British electorate to fundamentally change its mind. The ERG and the DUP forced Theresa May from office because they worried that her backstop would create divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. They backed Boris Johnson, a true believer in the Brexit cause, to replace her. They have been rewarded for their strategic brilliance with an actual border in the Irish Sea instead. The Labour leadership mistook the phenomenon of voters backing their party in 2017 – in order to prevent a Tory landslide – for genuine enthusiasm for them and their project. They backed a General Election. They achieved their worst result in eighty years. Moderates of all stripes ended up polarising the issue still further by letting the best (be that, for them, a referendum or a harder Brexit) be the enemy of the good. Everybody made mistakes.
Everybody, that is, except Boris Johnson. Our Prime Minister may not be your cup of tea. You may even look at the available evidence and conclude that he is a bad person. But it would be an error to confuse whatever feelings you may have about the man with your analysis of his performance as a politician. However one looks at it, and in the face of most conventional wisdom along the way, Johnson has been a uniquely successful politician these last three years. He resigned at the right time, even though the great and the good argued he had finished his own career in doing so. He won the leadership in spite of the real animus many of his colleagues felt towards him. He secured a deal with the EU that satisfied his sceptics to the Right and he restored Parliamentary discipline with a brutality that many warned could be his downfall, but which wasn’t. And then he won a majority – a huge majority – that enabled him to finally take this country out of the EU.
One can disagree on principle with each and every decision along the way. But looking back, now, it is hard to argue that these decisions were stupid or inept – provided one keeps in mind that the political purpose of Boris Johnson is to become and, then to survive as, Prime Minister. Theresa May was fond of saying that ‘politics is not a game’. Well yes, that’s true in a rather earnest way and important as well but also, sometimes, politics is a game really. And Boris Johnson looks, on all the available evidence, to be rather good at it.
Of course, though, that could all be chance. No-one is ‘good’ at snakes and ladders. You roll your dice and go up or down on an outcome of luck rather than talent. And it is possible that Johnson is simply a lucky man. That there is no strategy or tactical nous here, he’s just been in the right places, mumbling the right lines at the right times. Maybe. But it is worth reflecting on Jeremy Vine’s anecdote about seeing Boris perform the same trick – of appearing to not know where he was speaking, of appearing to scribble down a speech at the last minute and of then appearing to forget the punchline to a joke halfway through – at two separate awards ceremonies. The whole thing was a routine, he even pretended to forget the same punchline to the same joke. Performed shambolicism is the Johnson brand. It is what he does. And so, perhaps, it is not luck after all.
For a variety of reasons, even Johnson’s opponents might secretly hope that is the case. That he is a man of good judgement and not simply a chancer who has gotten away with it – so far. Because, of course, it is not over. Not really. And not just because we failed to rally Big Ben to bong us out but because we have not ‘got Brexit done’, we are merely entering the next phase of Brexit. Trade negotiations with the EU. Parallel negotiations with the US. And a host of other challenges, too. The Middle East is a tinder box and a mutant virus is on the loose. HS2 is in the balance, we suffer alarming levels of knife and gun crime, the NHS is in perpetual crisis – on and on the list goes. Brexit is not done but it also is not everything. There is so much to do and so much at stake. And no-one can be lucky all of the time.