What Does Brexit Mean? We're About To Find Out

The government will finally have to wrestle with key questions on trade and EU rules.
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Brexit day is finally upon us and triumphant Leavers have already started amassing in Parliament Square.

Chants of Rule Britannia, that troublesome colonial tune, were heard echoing across Westminster five hours before Nigel Farage’s big celebration gets under way.

But there will be no such triumphalism from Boris Johnson, who decamped his cabinet to Sunderland for a symbolic Brexit day meeting in which he promised to go “full steam ahead to bring the nation together”.

He will return to Downing Street for a private party tonight, while other Tory Brexiteers are expected to attend lavish closed-door events in Mayfair and Chelsea.

But when the hangover fades tomorrow, the prime minister may well ponder on his visit to “north England”, as Sajid Javid awkwardly called it, and Sunderland – a hugely significant place in the Brexit saga.

Veterans of the 2016 referendum will remember how the Wearside city’s 61% Leave vote was the harbinger of one of the most seismic nights in British political history.

Such was the margin of victory, I remember one veteran lobby hack declaring a Leave win there and then – which at that stage seemed difficult to conceive.

Well, now it is real and it will certainly be real for Sunderland, which voted Leave despite its reliance on the Japanese car giant Nissan for jobs.

To coincide with the cabinet’s visit, the auto manufacturer pointedly said three and a half years after the referendum it was “still waiting” for “clarity” on what Britain’s future trading terms with the EU will be.

Michael Gove led calls for an “off-the-shelf” Canada-style deal with the EU but he and government are now conceding those plans will lead to extra checks and trade barriers for British businesses.

And the cabinet has discussed new plans to have 80% of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within three years.

But barriers to trade with the EU could end up being disastrous for companies like Nissan, which rely on seamless cross-border trade for just-in-time manufacturing.

Johnson’s visit to Sunderland and “levelling up” agenda at least shows he is taking responsibility for both the causes and impact of Brexit.

But from next week, he and the government will finally have to wrestle with the central questions: what is Brexit for, how much is the UK going to diverge from EU rules and sacrifice market access as a result, and how will that benefit the country?

Brussels will publish its draft negotiating mandate on Monday and the PM is not expected to hang around before following suit.

There have been suggestions that Johnson’s election victory, built off the back of wins in industrial northern ex-Labour heartlands, might drag him towards a softer Brexit to protect jobs in his new MPs’ constituencies.

But as one very senior Tory told me this week, a lot of those 2019 intake MPs are “true blue” Tories who will stand fully behind Johnson’s likely plans for a relatively hard Brexit with “no alignment”.

So companies like Nissan may finally begin to get the clarity they want, but it may not be what they were hoping for.

Some believe job losses and an economic slump are inevitable: the Treasury predicts nearly 5% of lost growth from a Canada-style deal and they think this will spark a new insurgent campaign on Europe … to rejoin the EU.

But tonight belongs to Leavers like Mark Francois, who vows to “pace myself up to 11pm and then maybe accelerate after that”, before watching “the sun rise on a free country”.

Quote Of The Day

“We want to have the best possible relationship with the United Kingdom, but it will never be as good as [EU] membership.”

– Ursula Von Der Leyen, European Commission president.

Friday Cheat Sheet

The presidents of the EU’s three major institutions have heralded Brexit day by expressing hope for continued strong ties with Britain but with warnings for the country over the consequences of the split.

In a joint letter published in several newspapers across the continent, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council leader Charles Michel and European Parliament president David Sassoli said the closeness of that partnership would hinge on decisions to be taken in the 11-month transitional period, “because every choice has a consequence”.

Labour leadership frontrunner Keir Starmer has said he would reverse Johnson’s end to freedom of movement for EU citizens if he becomes prime minister. The shadow Brexit secretary also used a speech at Westminster Cathedral Hall today to urge the PM to give EU citizens living in the UK the right to vote.

Johnson appeared to let slip plans to give the green light to HS2 in an interview with a 10 year-old. During an interview with FYI, a news show for children on Sky, the PM was asked about HS2 and said: “The only thing to do is keep digging”.

The first cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK with two members of the same family testing positive, the chief medical officer for England has said. Public Health England confirmed the two people had been staying in York when they were taken ill.

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