- - Thursday, January 23, 2020

LONDON — Peter Hills voted against Brexit, but after almost four years of dithering among politicians over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, he feels at peace with the Conservatives’ parliamentary victory last month on promises to get Brexit done.

One of Britain’s biggest foreign policy moves in a half century is coming to pass not with a bang but a distinct whimper. The “Megxit,” involving Prince Harry and his American-born wife Meghan Markle’s renouncement of royalty, has attracted massively more press attention than Brexit.

“I am relieved in some sense. With the hung Parliament and [former Prime Minister] Theresa May, it felt like the country was stuck in purgatory,” said Mr. Hills, a 30-year-old engineer and Labor Party supporter from Harrow, referring to Mrs. May’s minority government that lasted from 2017 to last month. “Now we’re on our way to heaven or hell.”

It goes against British sensibilities to disagree so publicly, personally and angrily on the world stage, as Britons have done almost constantly since the 2016 referendum that unexpectedly set Brexit into motion.

Today, though, regardless of political persuasion, Britons have largely given up the shouting and grandstanding. Brexiteers have conclusively won the argument, again, with the overwhelming victory of Mrs. May’s Conservative successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Those who wanted to stay in the EU have come to terms with the United Kingdom’s almost certain departure from the 28-nation bloc on Jan. 31.



The reality of the departure deepened Thursday when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans told the House of Commons that Queen Elizabeth II had blessed the official withdrawal law, the final formality on its legislative journey.

He made the brief announcement, which drew cheers of “Hear! Hear!” from some Conservative lawmakers, hours after the bill completed its passage through Parliament late Wednesday by getting approval from the House of Lords, The Associated Press reported.

“At times, it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it,” Mr. Johnson said.

The stiff upper lip in the face of the unknown strikes many as the appropriate British response.

“People are just happy Brexit isn’t the single thing being discussed in the media. For years there’s been uncertainty, and people can’t put their lives on hold any longer,” said Rosa Da Costa, 32, a research assistant from London who also voted to remain in the EU and supported the left-wing Labor Party in the Dec. 12 election.

Some claimed the British economy could spiral into a full-blown recession if a Brexit came to pass without a deal with the EU on trade, security, immigration and a host of other issues.

Hyperbole or not, Ms. Da Costa said, the existential claims, pro and con, forced her and her husband to put off major life decisions for years while they waited to see which way Brexit would go.

“We were looking to buy our first home, but we’ve definitely put our house hunting on hold and everything that goes with it, such as starting a family or even getting a dog,” she said. “I know several friends who have been in the same situation.”

Now that the path out of the Brexit gridlock looks clearer and the prospect of staying in the EU has been well and truly vanquished, the endless, malice-filled arguments between the warring sides has subsided and Britons can begin to get on with life.

“It feels a lot calmer. We have more clarity in the medium term,” said James Worron, 41, a media consultant from London who voted Conservative in December. “The sense of constant crisis and uncertainty has ended.”

Calm before the storm?

The British public should enjoy the lull in discord while it lasts, Ms. Da Costa said. Brexit is likely to raise other questions about Britain’s future, such as whether the fragmented union can survive in its present form.

“It’s the calm before the storm,” she said. “Scotland will want another referendum on their independence sooner rather than later, so it won’t last.”

University of Hertfordshire business professor Nigel Culkin noted that ironing out the details of Britain’s relationship with Europe after Brexit is also likely to kick off serious political debates that could take years to resolve.

“The biggest task is still to come,” Mr. Culkin said. “The next phase is negotiating the economic relationship, national security cooperation and questions such as data-sharing. All big changes come with unintended consequences, so certainty one minute becomes uncertainty the next.”

For the rest of the year, the relationship between Britain and the EU will remain largely unchanged. Mr. Johnson has pledged to conclude negotiations on those and other issues before 2021.

“Obviously, you always have to budget for a complete failure of common sense. That goes without saying, but I’m very, very, very confident — three very’s there — that we will get a deal,” Mr. Johnson told the BBC on Jan. 14 in his first major interview since the election.

But many Brexit watchers are doubtful.

“That is a very tall order,” said Tim Bale, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London. “If at least some sort of bare-bones arrangement can’t be put in place, then we could see considerable economic disruption and voter discontent looming at the back end of 2020.”

Add the constitutional quagmire of a renewed push for Scottish independence and a Labor Party yet to heal itself, and it’s easy to see how 2020 could be just as bumpy and divisive as the past few years.

Scotland, the most pro-EU part of the kingdom, voted down an independence referendum in 2014, but that was before the Brexit question. Views on Brexit differ so much between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. that pro-independence Scottish politicians think now is their moment.

“Brexit increases the chances the Scottish will vote for ‘Scotxit,’ but that would lead to a situation even more complex than Brexit,” said Tim Oliver, a political analyst at Loughborough University London. “That’s not to say it won’t happen.”

As the Withdrawal Act was crossing the finish line Thursday, Scottish lawmakers warned of challenges to come.

Scottish National Party lawmaker Ian Blackford said the U.K. was in a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did not back the Brexit bill, the AP reported.

Boris Johnson has trampled over the democratic votes in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff,” Mr. Blackford said.

Yet another political tempest is brewing, as the bruised Labor Party looks for a new leader after its worst electoral defeat since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.

Five candidates are battling for the party’s future. Some are advocating a continuation of the far-left policies introduced by the soon-to-be-ousted Jeremy Corbyn, while others are calling for the party to return to the electable center-left ground it held during the Tony Blair years.

Mr. Worron, the Conservative voter, said none of the potential leaders worries him as a rival for power. He said the party’s wider membership is hellbent on maintaining Mr. Corbyn’s dogma regardless of the failures it brings at the ballot box.

“I think the party still wants to cleave to the left and the new leader won’t have enough room to maneuver,” he said.

Even some Labor voters are exasperated by it all. Mr. Hills fears further electoral defeat if the leading Corbynist candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, succeeds him.

“She’s in cloud-cuckoo land. She thinks Corbyn, who lost two elections, has done nothing wrong,” he said.

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