The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boris Johnson’s biggest failing? It’s the post-Brexit economy.

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson during a general election campaign event on Dec. 10, 2019 in Staffordshire, Britain. (Ben Stansall/Getty Images)
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Stryker McGuire, who lives in London, is a former editor at Newsweek and Bloomberg.

Over the past few days, commentators have endlessly hashed out the proximate causes for the downfall of soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The police fined him for attending parties at 10 Downing Street that violated his own pandemic rules. He lied about what he knew about an alleged sexual harasser he had promoted to an important job in Parliament. And those were just a few of his most recent breaches of long-accepted norms. During Johnson’s three years in office, his flagrant disregard for propriety prompted two of his own ethics advisers to quit.

In historical terms, however, those transgressions will end up being little more than footnotes. Viewed from afar, Johnson’s greatest failing is liable to be what he hoped would be his glorious legacy: Brexit. Johnson was for years Brexit’s biggest cheerleader. In December 2019, his Conservative Party won a landslide election under the battle cry of “Get Brexit Done.” And he did: Less than two months later, Britain left the European Union. The problem for Johnson is that Brexit is doing serious and lasting damage to the British economy.

With the effects of the pandemic fading, the scarring caused directly by Brexit is increasingly plain to see. At the Port of Dover, the busiest roll-on, roll-off ferry crossing in Europe, truck drivers subject to controls that haven’t existed for nearly 50 years sometimes wait half a day to continue their journeys. Modeling by the Centre for European Reform found that solely because of Brexit, British trade in goods was down during the first half of last year, ranging between 11 and 16 percent. “There is evidence that businesses face new and significant real-world challenges in trading with the EU that cannot be attributed to the pandemic,” the House of Lords European Affairs Committee reported in December.

By ending the free movement of labor between Britain and the continent, Brexit is hollowing out the workforce. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of job vacancies in the first half of this year rose to a record 1.3 million, up from about 504,000 before Brexit and covid-19 set in. The shortages afflict businesses large and small, from cafes and pubs to farms and manufacturing plants. Within the National Health Service, the shortfall early last year amounted to 6 percent of 1.5 million employees.

If there’s an economic silver lining to Brexit, researchers scouring the data have yet to find it. “A less-open UK will mean a poorer and less productive one by the end of the decade, with real wages expected to fall by 1.8 per cent, a loss of £470 [$564] per worker a year, and labour productivity by 1.3 per cent,” according to a June report by the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance and the Resolution Foundation.

Inflation hit 9.1 percent in May, a 40-year high, and is expected to reach 11 percent before the end of the year; some experts cite Brexit as a major contributing factor. The overall tax burden is rising to its highest level since the postwar era, as is government spending. Citing these factors, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last month predicted that British economic growth will grind to a halt next year, likely making it the worst-performing economy in the Group of 20 — aside from Russia.

The pound has been steadily weakening against the dollar since the Brexit referendum; the depreciation translates into a cost-of-living hike of £870, or $1,044, per year for the average household. Panmure Gordon & Co., a London-based investment bank, estimates that business investment is roughly £58 billion, or $69 billion, a year lower than it would have been if Britain had not left the European single market and customs union. While Britain has managed to negotiate a smattering of trade deals, most of them relatively insignificant, it has made zero progress on its chief goal, a U.S.-U.K. pact.

Only now, with the covid tide going out and a devastating cost-of-living crisis rushing in, is the topic of Brexit’s economic toll finding its way back into public discourse. Not coincidentally, support for Brexit has been slowly falling — from 46 percent two months after the Brexit referendum in 2016 to 37 percent in May, according to YouGov polling.

Ordinarily, an opposition party would be feasting on the governing party’s failings. But Johnson’s big 2019 victory changed the usual political dynamics. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have had pro- and anti-European wings since Britain joined the E.U. a half century ago. In accruing their 80-seat majority under Johnson’s leadership, the Tories won dozens of seats in the north of England that were traditionally Labour but voted for Brexit in the referendum.

Chastened, the Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Starmer has decided to reside firmly in the Brexit camp under a new slogan, “Make Brexit Work.” That’s not impossible, although large numbers of pro-Europe Britons surveying the fractured economic landscape say it’s a pipe dream. It will be tempting for whoever succeeds Johnson to blame him for Brexit’s breakdown — but that tactic can only work for so long.

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