The Windsor framework clearly shows that the only thing getting in the way of making Brexit work (as best it can) is the intransigence of hard-right Brexiters.
Early indications are that no one thinks the Windsor framework is perfect but the majority of commentators – including politicians from all parties, members of the public, the EU, as well as the current government – think it represents progress and is as good as the UK can achieve in the current climate and at this moment.
A coup for Sunak
The agreement was concluded quickly. Not long after Rishi Sunak took office he indicated he was ready for a settlement and has quietly enabled the negotiations to go ahead and an agreement to be reached. On announcing the deal in the Commons, Sunak paid tribute to those who had made it possible on both the UK and EU side.
Sunak’s greatest debt will be to the policy civil servants and negotiators who have generated possible options for consideration, identified where compromises might be made, undertaken the economic analysis of various options, assessed their potential impacts and gauged likely support amongst ordinary people, businesses and other interests, on whose cooperation the UK government relies.
The government will have left the political analysis and negotiations within the Conservative Party to political advisers, focusing only on what is appropriate for its role. All of this could have happened sooner, a lot sooner. But the Conservative government, supported by hard-line Brexiters, has resisted any measures that might make Brexit work better.
Engaging with the practicalities of Brexit
Until now, it is the government that has been the drag on solution-finding by creating a negotiating tone that defied cooperation and compromise. Failure to engage with the practicalities of Brexit began with David Cameron who refused to permit civil servants to plan for a leave scenario prior to the referendum, so convinced was he that remain would win. Had this planning been permitted, it would have been clear prior to the vote the risks that the country faced, and the public might have been advised to weigh them in the balance when casting their vote.
After the vote was passed and Theresa May triggered Article 50, the hard work of identifying all its implications began. The government undertook its own assessment Operation Yellowhammer which identified problems in every area of British life, so entwined and integrated was the UK in the EU. The government suppressed Operation Yellowhammer and when it was leaked months later, argued it was more ‘project fear’ and, in any case, now out of date.
There are no indications that the government allowed civil servants to address any of the issues identified in the Yellowhammer document. Rather than planning to ameliorate problems such as queues at Dover, food shortages, labour shortages, or the UK border in the Irish Sea, the government blithely carried on as though the problems did not exist. As far as it was concerned, Brexit was the withdrawal agreement and was done. Policy success, or practical implementation, was a problem for the market or citizens.
Brexit still not ‘done’
As a token, the government opted not to implement some aspects of Brexit such as food and import checks at Dover, happily conceding control over its borders rather than face the consequences of policy implementation. Meanwhile the EU had prepared and implemented the necessary changes, much to the surprise of the British government that thought its own laissez-faire attitude should be replicated across the Channel.
When forced to confront the reality of empty shelves, and businesses going bankrupt it took action in a piecemeal way – opening up truck parks miles from Dover, quietly adding new occupations and income thresholds to the shortage occupation list hoping anti-immigrant organisations would not notice, and putting off the electronic entry authorisation until such time as the country may be able to manage it.
Not only has the government been lazy about and uncommitted to Brexit implementation, it has expressed no desire to recover good relations with the EU in order to lessen any negative impacts. A poor relationship with Europe became an end in itself and any friendliness or concessions on either side were interpreted as either ‘betrayal’ or ‘winning’, according to which side most benefitted. The EU being wrong became more important than the UK being right.
Conflict, intransigence and the blame game
Following the 2019 election, the Conservative Party and the government, were in thrall to conflict seekers such as Boris Johnson, David Frost and Dominic Cummings, all of whom knew no other way to negotiate other than by bludgeon and antipathy. They sought only to bully and bulldoze and had no other tools at their disposal, behaving like table-thumping, intransigent mining bosses and trade unionists of the 1970s.
Securing concessions from the EU was unlikely so long as they had any influence on the British side. Rather than reflect on this and try and find a way through the problems of intransigence, Johnson doubled down and sought to ignore, break or change the law in the hope the problems might miraculously vanish.
Brexiter commentators, supported by some ministers, blamed civil servants for Brexit failure and accused them of being insufficiently committed to Brexit, as though commitment (and EU-bashing) alone would deliver it. Some ministers (Michael Gove and Sunak come to mind) were not so inclined, and Sunak knew he could rely on the civil service to work with him on resetting the relationship with the EU and improving the situation in Northern Ireland (to start with).
Brextremists have nobody but themselves to blame
This deal has shown that, when ministers allow civil servants to exercise all their skills, knowledge and negotiating powers to achieve government aims – legally and ethically – they will do so with energy and commitment, and at speed. Sunak has been prime minister only since October 2022, a mere four months and he has achieved what Johnson either could not or would not over a couple of years. Sunak’s leadership in this deal is undeniable and has shown, as almost nothing else could have done, that it was not civil servants preventing Brexit from ‘working’ but extremist politicians who denied them the option of finding workable and legal solutions. Let’s hope pragmatism, compromise and cooperation may yet have a renaissance in UK politics.