LONDON — As Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to depart Downing Street, tossed from office by his own party, his legacy — the opening lines of his eventual obituary — will measure him as the man who “got Brexit done.”
As on all things Brexit, the answer is divisive — and a snapshot. But it is fair to say: Most people don’t think Brexit has delivered on its lofty promises, and Britain has not reached those “sunlit uplands,” a line of deep nostalgia, lifted by Brexit proponents from a Churchill speech given in the darkest hours of 1940.
Johnson championed the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. He sold Brexit as a transformative event: a chance to rebuild the old empire for the 21st century, as a swashbuckling, sovereign nation, driven by clever enterprise, nimble regulation, free ports and cutting-edge finance, to become a leader of the free-market world.
With “get Brexit done” as his slogan, Johnson led his party to a landslide election victory. He succeeded where his predecessor, Theresa May, had failed in getting a deal passed in Parliament and finalized with the Europeans. And he oversaw Britain’s departure from the union with one of the hardest possible versions of Brexit, ending free movement and frictionless trade between the continent and Britain.
And now? Britain has “taken back control.” But the government has struggled to show the benefits.
Critics mocked a government report that highlighted the reintroduction of blue passports, along with crown stamps and imperial measurements on pint glasses — things Britain could have done as part of the E.U. Meanwhile, the daily news is about how British businesses see less trade and more paperwork, and how British travelers boarding ferries to France face miles-long queues.
Brexit’s defenders will note that the worst-case scenarios haven’t played out. The value of the British pound didn’t crash. There have been no dire food shortages. Although the loss of European workers has contributed to scarcities in the labor market, the National Health Service managed to care for its patients, even through a punishing pandemic.
For the true believers, there’s a sense that the full benefits of Brexit haven’t arrived because, in their minds, Brexit hasn’t fully happened. The promise of a better Brexit remains just over the horizon.
The skeptics, with many economists among them, say the harm of Brexit is only starting to be felt.
Economy: No boom, no bust
In his final Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament, Johnson repeated a favorite refrain: Britain had the “fastest economic growth” among the Group of Seven wealthy nations last year.
Don’t be shocked: Johnson’s claim is misleading.
Britain did have a top-of-the-charts 2021, but a report to Parliament this month said that is partly because its economy experienced the worst decline among the G-7 during the pandemic — and so the rebound looks bigger, bouncier, more bodacious in comparison.
The Bank of England projects that Britain will enter a recession before the end of this year. It is tricky to isolate the impact of Brexit from global factors: the pandemic, supply-chain shocks, and the spike in energy and commodity prices driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine. But it is clear that although Brexit has not sunk the British economy, it has not produced a boom, either.
Since Britons voted in 2016 to leave the E.U., the country’s per capita income has grown by 3.8 percent in real terms, compared with 8.5 percent growth in the E.U., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
John Springford and colleagues at the Center for European Reform say their economic models have found that Britain’s gross domestic product is 5 percent lower because of Brexit.
Other economists estimate the figure at 1 percent — or 2 or 3 percent.
“It’s complicated,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London. “But there is a degree of consensus among all of us that Brexit has had a negative impact on the U.K. economy, as elementary economics and common sense would suggest.”
Portes pointed to a central fact: “We’ve made it harder for us to trade with our closest trading partner, Europe.”
He said ordinary Britons can sense the impact of Brexit when they have trouble ordering clothes online from Europe that they previously were able to have delivered within a day or two, or when they go on holiday and find themselves in long lines for passport holders from countries outside the E.U.
But the impact on the economy may take years to fully reveal itself. “I compare Brexit to a slow tire puncture versus a car crash,” Portes said. “It takes time.”
“The Big Brexit” report by economists at the London School of Economics and the Resolution Foundation concluded that leaving the E.U. reduced the openness and competitiveness of Britain’s economy, which is likely also to reduce productivity and wages in the decade ahead.
Trade: No sightings of Superman
In a major speech in February 2020, Johnson laid out a mixed-metaphor vision for post-Brexit Britain “on the launching pad,” emerging from “its chrysalis … after decades of hibernation.” The country, he said, was “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion” of free trade.
On the basis of the evidence so far, Britain is no Superman.
It has signed trade agreements with more than 70 countries for a total value of $929 billion, the government says.
Almost all the deals simply replicate the trade arrangements Britain had as a member of the E.U.
Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers promised a lucrative trade agreement with the United States. That has not been high on the U.S. agenda under presidents Trump and Biden.
Britain has signed two new independent trade deals since leaving the E.U., with Australia and New Zealand, and a third digital trade agreement with Singapore.
Speaking about the pact with Australia, lawmaker Angus Brendan MacNeil, the chair of Parliament’s International Trade Committee, said, “The government must level with the public; this trade deal will not have the transformative effects ministers would like to claim.”
MacNeil noted that the government’s own impact assessment shows an increase in GDP of just 0.08 percent as a result of the deal, and the balance of gains and losses varies between economic sectors in Britain. British farmers, for instance, are deeply worried about being overwhelmed by cheap imported meat raised to lower standards.
Migration: Fewer Romanians, more Nigerians
With Brexit, Britain fulfilled a promise to “take back control” of its borders. No longer can someone just show up from Paris or Prague and start a new life in London.
But Britons who voted for Brexit because they wanted less immigration would be disappointed.
“Overall, the numbers are likely higher now,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
Many who arrived before Brexit remain. There have been 6 million applications from Europeans for “settled status,” which grants them long-term residency and a path to British citizenship, if they choose.
Although the number of new arrivals from Europe has plummeted, those have been replaced by migrants from elsewhere; at the top are new arrivals from India, Nigeria and the Philippines.
Johnson boasted that Britain’s new points-based immigration system would lure “the best and brightest.” But the system is more open than early critics imagined — with lower skill thresholds and no overall cap on numbers — making it easier for non-E.U. migrants to come.
Britain has also offered special status to people fleeing Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Despite all these arrivals, the United Kingdom is facing a massive labor shortage blamed in part on Brexit. The country has struggled to bring in fruit pickers, hotel maids and truck drivers. The National Health Service in England is short tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and midwives, in what a parliamentary committee called the “greatest workforce crisis in their history.”
Meanwhile, illegal immigration has soared, with desperate people boarding unseaworthy rafts to cross the English Channel, and more than 20,000 detained this year. A controversial program to fly those asylum seekers to Rwanda is tied up in the courts.
Covid: Early vaccination leader; high death toll
Among his Brexit wins, Johnson often returns to the notion that Britain delivered “the fastest vaccine rollout anywhere in Europe” by “streamlining procurement processes and avoiding cumbersome E.U. bureaucracy.”
It is true that Britain was able to preorder vaccine candidates without having to worry about what less-wealthy countries in Europe were willing to pay per dose or needing to figure out how to allocate doses equitably among countries.
But Europe quickly caught up to Britain’s fast start. Today, Britain is in the middle of the pack for the percentage of the population vaccinated.
Also part of the pandemic record: Johnson’s government was criticized by its own public health experts for going into lockdowns too late and lifting restrictions too early — with serious consequences. The editors of the British Medical Journal called the efforts “too little, too late, too flawed.”
Britain had some of the highest rates of excess deaths in the world in 2020, although in that regard, it has since moved into the middle among developed countries. Between March 2020 and June 2022, more than 200,335 people in Britain died in cases involving covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Northern Ireland: Good for business, bad for politics
What to do about Northern Ireland was a central sticking point in the Brexit negotiations.
An open border on the island of Ireland had helped to resolve decades of violence between unionists and republicans. No one wanted to reignite the violence of “the Troubles” by instituting checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But with Northern Ireland Brexiting along with the rest of the United Kingdom, that invisible border would mark the outer edge of the E.U.
To get a deal done, Johnson signed — and hailed — a protocol that keeps Northern Ireland inside the E.U.’s single market for goods and allows for checks and controls on trade entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
Johnson’s government now says this arrangement is tearing the kingdom apart, creating disunion and strife. Members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have refused to sit in the executive in Belfast in protest.
For many businesses, manufacturers and traders in Northern Ireland, the half-in, half-out arrangement has actually been a win. “The dual access is most welcome,” said Neil Hutcheson of the Federation of Small Business.
Irwin Armstrong, the chief executive of Ciga Healthcare in Northern Ireland and a member of Johnson’s Conservative Party, told The Washington Post, “I think the protocol, as it is, helps almost everyone — but the politicians.”
Johnson’s government is pushing a law through Parliament to unilaterally overturn the protocol — a move decried by critics as a breach of international law.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the favorite to replace Johnson as prime minister, has been leading the charge.