The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to mark Brexit Day? Boris Johnson is searching for the right tone.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned for Brexit but is trying not to gloat. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

LONDON — At the strike of 11 p.m. local time on Jan. 31 — a.k.a. midnight in Brussels — Britain will leave the European Union, more or less.

Brexit champion Boris Johnson will have won. But, as Britain’s new prime minister, Johnson is struggling to get his victory celebration just right.

He doesn’t want to gloat. No, no, no. In fact, he is begging Britain to move on and forget the unpleasantness of the past three years.

Out: “remainers” vs. “leavers.”

In: healing.

Johnson’s staff at 10 Downing Street is pledging, half-seriously, to ban the word “Brexit” from their briefings — to emphasize that they’ve delivered on their pledge to “Get Brexit done,” but also, perhaps, because the word remains toxic.

According to pollsters, the country is as divided as ever, between those who love Brexitthose who hate it, and those who are so sick of it they can’t stand to hear another word. Some Brits are thrilled at the prospect of a “Global Britain,” freed from the constraints of the E.U. and empowered to forge lucrative trade deals around the world. Others fear a smaller, more isolated, middling Britain, sucking the fumes of other nations roaring ahead. Stay tuned.

Regardless of what comes next, Exit Day marks the beginning of the end for a long, ugly divorce that has truly torn Britain apart and posed some of the greatest challenges to its institutions, politics and economy since World War II.

The government has been searching for the right tone to mark such a profound moment — without further aggravating divisions. Johnson aides concede that getting the commemoration right is a tricky business. The challenge is what American political consultants call “optics.”

Fireworks? The government has nixed fireworks. Too in-your-face.

They’re going with a light show. Not a huge one. Think: discreet lasers. The display will stress the union of the four nations — England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — of the United Kingdom.

Alas, there will be no bonging by Big Ben.

The iconic bell is temporarily in mothballs, and its home, Elizabeth Tower, is covered in scaffolding, as the Palace of Westminster gets a $5 billion refurbishment.

The idea of getting the Great Bell going again for Brexit was born and embraced, but then withered and died very quickly.

This has upset fervent Brexiteers.

Iain Duncan Smith, a big Brexit booster, member of Parliament and former leader of the Conservative Party, told the BBC that it was “bizarre” that Britain couldn’t ring the bell, whose clang he described as “sonorous and deep.”

“It’s a very big moment, and that moment needs to be marked by the biggest we got, and that is Big Ben,” he said. “Nothing is bigger.”

Johnson himself kind of bungled it by suggesting the public pay for the bell to ring in Brexit, only to learn it wasn’t realistic to crowdfund the estimated cost of $650,000. And Parliament wasn’t keen on any of the public funding mechanisms proposed.

Boris Johnson wants Britons to pay for Big Ben to bong for Brexit

Johnson’s misstep led to aggressively alliterative headlines in the tabloids, like this one from the Mirror: “Boris’ bonkers ‘bung a bob for Big Ben Brexit bongs’ bid bombs.”

Instead, the plan for Exit Day is for Johnson and his cabinet to dash up to the north of England — probably to one of the towns that abandoned the Labour Party to give Johnson’s Conservatives their landslide victory in December’s general election.

The cabinet’s rare out-of-town session is designed to stress to the underserved, struggling north Johnson’s new message: We care.

The prime minister has promised that the U.K. will “level up” spending on police, hospitals and infrastructure, away from dashing London and the well-to-do southeast and toward the post-industrial Midlands and north.

In the evening on Jan. 31, Johnson will give a televised speech from inside 10 Downing Street. The prime minister’s official spokesman, who goes unnamed according to protocol, said his boss will emphasize “moving the country ahead as one.”

The spokesman said, “His message will be healing division and turning the page.”

As the government undertakes its balanced Brexit hurrah, the true believers, led by radio personality and super-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, will host a party down the block in Parliament Square.

Farage promises comedians, jubilant speeches, music, flag-waving and a recording of Big Ben.

“If the government wanted to celebrate Brexit, Big Ben would bong for Brexit, but the government now appears to be embarrassed by Brexit, rather than wanting to celebrate it,” Farage told talk radio.

“It’s almost as if ‘we told the electorate we believe in Brexit, they’ve all voted for us, so isn’t that just great’ — it is pathetic,” he said.

The Parliament Square show, which could draw 10,000 people, will represent a turning of the page for Farage, too. He has served as an elected, Euroskeptic member of the European Parliament since 1999, and his Brexit Party did exceptionally well in the European Parliament elections last year. But as Britain is leaving the E.U., all British parliamentarians in Brussels are headed home. In the December general election, not a single Brexit Party candidate won a seat in the British Parliament.

So what happens to Britain when it wakes up the morning after Exit Day?

Essentially, nothing. The whole point of the coming 11-month transition period is that nothing changes for travel and trade.

Instead, teams of negotiators will be dispersed around the world to hustle up trade deals and re-ink some of the 600 international treaties that Britain is leaving by exiting the E.U.

Despite the spin that a trade pact with President Trump is at the top of the list, Sajid Javid, Britain’s finance minister, told an audience in Davos, Switzerland, this past week that the U.K. needed and wanted a deal with the E.U. first.

The timeline is tight. Even the most ardent Brexiteers in government acknowledge there are tough talks ahead, with Britain either securing a free-trade deal or not.

Iain McLean, a professor of politics at the University of Oxford, said that “half the nation was despairing, half was satisfied” on the eve of Britain’s formal departure.

Still, he said, “I see no signs of anybody who is keen on a celebration except extreme Brexiteers.”

The idea of a festival spotlighting the political union of the U.K. seemed a bit “downbeat,” he observed, when “two bits are possibly in the process of breaking off.”

He was referring to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where majorities voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum on E.U. membership. The general election in December showed that in both nations, nationalist sentiment is in the air.

Asked about reports that Johnson doesn’t want people to use the word “Brexit” anymore, McLean said, “I wish him good luck with that one!”

Prince Harry is part of a long tradition of disgruntled ‘spare heirs’

How Megxit put Queen Elizabeth II in the role of crisis manager once again

Northern Ireland’s parliament goes back to work, three years after collapse

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news