After nearly seven years of mudslinging, after five prime ministers and six finance ministers, the UK has pressed reset on Brexit.
The process, which has paralysed UK politics, damaged relations with allies, shrunk the economy there by 5 per cent and done untold damage to UK trade, needed a fresh start.
The Windsor Framework, which essentially fine-tunes the Northern Ireland protocol, marks a new era of UK-EU relations: an entente cordiale between London and Brussels.
Rushi Sunak, who only a few months ago looked like just another Brexit domino, pulled off something of a coup in managing to improve relations with Europe while simultaneously appeasing the Brexiteer ideologues in his party. He is said to have been clapped into a meeting with the party’s Brexiteer-led European Research Group.
Are the Tory grandees finally sick and tired of where the EU divorce has brought the party? Is the looming electoral crash rekindling a kind of John Major-era pragmatism? Or was the prospect of Boris Johnson returning enough to sway dithering MPs? They all probably fed in in some way.
But what we’re witnessing is perhaps something more fundamental than a party pivoting from a self-negating position and the beginning of a process that will see the UK gradually moving back towards the EU.
The prospect of rejoining is too politically divisive for now. But over the next decade the UK will steadily reduce the walls it has erected, making Brexit seem a rather pointless affair in the end. More a political rendition of the old nursery rhyme the Grand Old Duke of York, who marches his men up to the top of the hill and back down again, to what end nobody knows.
Economic advantage has always been the driving force behind Britain. There are reasons why London, despite the best efforts of Frankfurt and Paris, remains the unrivalled financial capital of Europe. Brexit is an aberration, drummed up in the heat of post-financial crash populism.
Back in 2016, the former chief executive of the Irish Stock Exchange, Deirdre Somers, noted that Britain was streets ahead of other EU countries when it came to financial services and that Ireland would be left “exposed” by not having them at the EU negotiating table.
Ms Somers said she was involved in a lot of negotiations at European level and “with great deference to my European colleagues, when Britain leaves the room, from a negotiation perspective, the only adult has left the room”.
“They are the most charismatic, the most capable, they have a machine … and they are utterly consistent and ruthless in the execution of that,” she told a Brexit seminar event hosted by The Irish Times.
It was only a matter of time before that machine reasserted. Political support for Brexit has crumbled and the age-profile of Stay versus Leave voters means this is unlikely to change.
There’s a revealing scene in the recent TV docudrama, This England, which covers the poisonous atmosphere that developed between the Johnson’s former administration, its team of advisers and the civil service. In scene after scene, the architect of the 2016 Leave campaign Dominic Cummings (played by Simon Paisley Day) excoriates Whitehall officials, for – as he sees it – their endless failings. Near the end, however, Mark Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant (played by Justin Edwards), pushes back, suggesting the paralysis in government may have more to do with the special advisers themselves.
Advisers, he says, “who are in the main ex-journalists or activists who have no experience of delivering or managing, whose expertise is in PR or campaigning, whose interest is in eye-catching phrases or promises or arguments, and who are used to being on the outside lobbing bombs and bricks through the windows rather than being on the inside engaging with the boring problems of how to deliver at a local level day in, day out.”
It is perhaps one of the most vicious debunking of the Brexiteers themselves.
Johnson, Cummings, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, the figureheads behind the process, have now all departed just as the business of implementing begins.
Johnson is skulking on the backbenches rambling about taking back control. Cummings is trying to reboot his career via a new IT consultancy business. Rees-Mogg never had the faintest idea what to do with Brexit once it arrived other than to move his hedge fund to Dublin. As former minister for Brexit opportunities, he solicited Sun newspaper readers to flag the possible benefits of Brexit to him. Imagine the minister in charge of the process looking for ideas on how to make it work via a poll in a tabloid newspaper.
And the pint-drinking man of the people Farage is now posting anti-immigrant videos on Twitter, allegedly showing how migrant criminals are blind siding police by removing their ankle bracelet monitors.
Hard to believe these people spearheaded such a monumental shift in the UK’s politics and economy.
The strange thing about the “global Britain” mantra was that Britain moved in an insular direction under Brexit. The trade deals it has done so far have been rushed and inimical to British interests while the country’s immigration issue remains as divisive as ever. The fallout over Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker’s comments criticising the government’s asylum policies testifies to that.
The UK has now begun the process of softening the Brexit rhetoric and improving relations with Brussels. Next will be the moving from a hard to a soft Brexit, a more politically treacherous journey.