London – As Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to depart Downing Street, tossed from office by his own party, his legacy — the opening lines of his eventual obituary — will call him the man who “got Brexit done”.
So how is that going? What can be said about the post-Brexit Britain that Johnson is leaving behind?
As on all things Brexit, the answer is divisive — and a snapshot. But it is fair to say: The people generally agree that Brexit has not yet delivered on its lofty promises, that Britain would reach those “sunlit uplands”, a line of deep nostalgia, lifted by Brexit proponents from a Churchill speech in the darkest hours of 1940.
Johnson championed the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. He sold Brexit as a transformative event: A chance to rebuild the old empire for the 21st century, as a swashbuckling, global, sovereign nation, driven by clever enterprise, nimble regulation, free ports and cutting-edge finance, to become a leader of the free-market world.
With “get Brexit done” as his slogan, Johnson led his party to a landslide election victory. He succeeded where his predecessor, Theresa May, had failed in getting a deal passed in Parliament and finalised with the Europeans. And he oversaw Britain’s departure from the union with one of the hardest possible versions of Brexit, ending free movement and frictionless trade between the continent and Britain.
And now? Britain has “taken back control”. But the government has struggled to show the benefits.
Critics mocked a government report that highlighted the reintroduction of blue passports, along with crown stamps and imperial measurements on pint glasses — things Britain could have done as part of the EU.
Meanwhile, the daily news is about how British businesses see less trade and more paperwork, and how British travellers boarding ferries to France face miles-long queues.
Brexit’s defenders will note that the worst-case scenarios haven’t played out. The value of the British pound didn’t crash. There have been no dire food shortages. Although the loss of European workers has contributed to scarcities in the labour market, the National Health Service managed to care for its patients, even through a punishing pandemic.
For the true believers, there’s a sense that the full benefits of Brexit haven’t arrived because, in their minds, Brexit hasn’t fully happened. The promise of a better Brexit remains just over the horizon.
The sceptics, with many economists among them, say the harm of Brexit is only starting to be felt.
In his final Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament, Johnson repeated a favourite refrain: Britain had “the fastest-growing economy“ among the Group of Seven wealthy nations last year.
Don’t be shocked: Johnson’s claim is misleading.
Britain did have a top-of-the-charts 2021, but a report to Parliament this month said that is partly because its economy experienced the worst decline among the G-7 during the pandemic – and so the rebound looks bigger, bouncier, more bodacious in comparison.
The Bank of England projects Britain will enter a recession before the end of this year. It is tricky to isolate the impact of Brexit from global factors: The pandemic, supply-chain shocks, and the spike in energy and commodity prices driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine. But it is clear that although Brexit has not sunk the British economy, it has not produced a boom, either.
Since Britons voted in 2016 to leave the EU, the country’s per capita income has grown by 3.8% in real terms, compared with 8.5% growth in the EU, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
John Springford and colleagues at the Center for European Reform say their economic models have found that Britain’s GDP is 5 percent lower because of Brexit.
Other economists estimate the figure at 1% – or 2% or 3%.
“It’s complicated,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London. “But there is a degree of consensus among all of us that Brexit has had a negative impact on the U.K. economy, as elementary economics and common sense would suggest.”
Portes pointed to a central fact: “We’ve made it harder for us to trade with our closest trading partner, Europe.”
He said ordinary Britons can sense the impact of Brexit when they have trouble ordering clothes online from Europe that they previously were able to have delivered within a day or two, or when they go on holiday and find themselves in long lines for passport holders from countries outside the E.U.
But the impact on the economy may take years to fully reveal itself. “I compare Brexit to a slow tyre puncture versus a car crash,” Portes said. “It takes time.”
“The Big Brexit” report by economists at the London School of Economics and the Resolution Foundation concluded that leaving the E.U. reduced the openness and competitiveness of Britain’s economy, which is likely also to reduce productivity and wages in the decade ahead.
The Washington Post