Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit, but the pursuit of power

The 2019 General Election was widely touted as ‘the Brexit election’ by both the Conservatives and some broadcasters. No doubt Brexit was an important issue looming large in light of significant parliamentary and courtroom battles for much of the year. It will be suggested that – to borrow Theresa May’s phrase – the saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is deceptive because its primary purpose is to serve as a means, not an end, for the pursuit of political power.

The original decision to support an EU referendum was taken by David Cameron before the 2015 General Election. Five years earlier, the Tories had failed to win a majority and had to settle for forming an uneasy coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The cause was Nigel Farage’s UKIP taking a slice of voters from the Tories. 

Cameron’s offer of a referendum worked in the general election by ending UKIP’s threat and gaining a small parliamentary majority. But Brexit was never planned for or wanted. A year later Cameron rushed a referendum only to lose and exit office. His successor, May, spent the first months of her term fighting lost causes in the courts possibly to make them scapegoats for the inability to realise Brexit. Ultimately, she never succeeded and Boris Johnson became Prime Minister over the summer.

Johnson made much of the repeated mantra ‘get Brexit done’. This undoubtedly appealed to pro-Leave voters and Farage’s new Brexit Party posed no real threat after the latter agreed only to stand in a one-third of seats instead of all – and winning none. 

But that phrase ‘get Brexit done’ was also successful for two further reasons. The first is it gave a simple, clear message about what the Tories would do if they won. In contrast, Labour published multiple manifestos that probably diffused their message, rendered less clear their priorities and timetable for delivering on them. 

The second success of ‘get Brexit done’ was it resonated with voters who wanted get news coverage about Brexit done. Over three years, there has been much fatigue among the public in making heads or tails of how progress has or has not been made. With over 18,000 EU laws to sift through and a 40+ year institutional relationship, some likened Brexit to separating ingredients from a cake after baking it. It’s certainly a sticky and complex matter for even a trained expert in EU law. 

This latter reason suggests that ‘get Brexit done’ had traction not because the public wants Brexit, but because the public wants to move on from it. While the government made clear Brexit means a new Australian-styled points-based immigration system, the truth is such a system was launched by Labour in 2008. If this is the big signature policy change, Brexit isn’t needed. 

Within 24 hours of reopening Parliament, Johnson outlined plans to change the withdrawal agreement he asked voters to back to cut workers’ rights and environmental protections. He also suggested a review of the BBC’s licence fee. 

A US study in the 1990s found that Americans would most often say they were for or against capital punishment based on whether they thought it was a deterrent, but the real reasons for supporting one side or another was based on values separate from deterrence. It is suggested here that Brexit’s origins and future lies mostly in using it as a means for the pursuit of other domestic ends like reshaping rights, the BBC and more. Whether this prediction is correct can be tested in five years, but signs are strong already.