LONDON: Britain’s freshly-elected parliament prepared on to move past years of partisan wrangling and initially approve Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s divorce deal with the European Union.
The all-but-certain outcome in the House of Commons will help Johnson meet his winning campaign promise to “get Brexit done” at any cost on 31 January.
But it will also push London and Brussels closer to another cliff edge that might disrupt decades of unfettered trade at the end of 2020. Last week’s polls put Johnson’s Conservatives in control of parliament and dispelled doubts over whether Britain was to become the first nation to leave the EU.
A final vote on Johnson’s separation terms will come when lawmakers return from their Christmas break early next month. But Britain will enter the holiday season closer to legal and economic independence than it has been at any point since the 2016 Brexit referendum. And Johnson has the freedom and power to shape Britain’s future that his predecessor Theresa May never had during her troubled three-year term.
“A new golden age for this United Kingdom is now within reach,” Johnson told parliament at its inaugural session. Britain is “taking back control of our money, laws, borders and trade and clearing the way for our overarching programme of national renewal,” he said.
Britain’s nervous financial market rejoiced when Johnson’s ruling Tories secured an 80-seat majority in the 650-member House of Commons. The healthy margin appeared to remove the possibility of more months of political uncertainty and chaos and of Britain crashing out of the bloc without any arrangements for what comes next.
But the pound fell back to its pre-election levels when Johnson introduced a series of small but potentially consequential changes into the official Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Britain”s formal departure on 31 January had been due to be followed by an 11-month transition period during which things would stay pretty much as they are now.
The sides are supposed to use the time to negotiate a comprehensive new agreement covering everything from trade to security and data protection. EU officials warn that such deals usually take years to hammer out. But Johnson ruled out the possibility of asking for a deadline extension in the version of the bill before parliament.
“A Minister of the Crown may not agree to an extension of the implementation period,” the bill now says. Analysts note that little prevents Johnson from pushing a new law through parliament removing that firm deadline should negotiations veer dangerously off track.
It also puts psychological pressure on European officials to back off some of their stiffer demands on London and seek a limited deal that leaves some big issues unresolved.
“The UK could get a (free trade agreement) done with the EU by end of 2020,” May”s former Brexit adviser Raoul Ruparel said. “But it would be a narrow and shallow one.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday that the bloc “will do the maximum” to meet the end-of-2020 deadline.