No 10 plans low-key Brexit celebration at 'dawn of new era'

Boris Johnson will say on Friday that Brexit signals “the dawn of a new era” as his government prepares for a low-key celebration at the moment of departure.

The prime minister is expected to mark the moment at 11pm with a pre-recorded video message promising to bring the country together and seek to eradicate inequalities between regions.

Does 31 January change anything?

Friday will mark the start of what is likely to be an uphill battle to get a trade deal done by the end of the year, not to mention all the non-trade issues that must also be resolved including security and intelligence cooperation, fisheries, data, education and research collaboration.

Although everyday life will remain the same and the UK will remain in the single market and the customs union until the end of the year as part of transition arrangements, the withdrawal agreement will be a legally binding international treaty that comes into force. It carries sanctions for any “backsliding or half measures”, as Michel Barnier’s adviser Stefaan de Rynck has pointed out.

What happens next?

We know little of the plans for the negotiations, and parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit has been restricted. The House of Lords EU committee has invited but failed to get Stephen Barclay to appear to explain the next stages, sources say.

While business has been clamouring for the government to reveal its Brexit vision beyond the joint aspiration of a tariff-free, quota-free deal, little is known about Boris Johnson’s specific goals.

When will negotiations begin?

Expect plenty of sabre-rattling on both sides, but negotiations are unlikely to begin before March. The European commission kicked off its 30-stage process in agreeing its negotiating goals before Christmas and these are expected to be signed off by member states at a meeting on 25 February.

Who will be negotiating for the UK?

David Frost, who replaced Oliver Robbins as the chief negotiator, is expected to lead a team of about 30 calling on expert knowledge from civil servants and trade experts. Some have suggested the government should hire as many as possible from the Canadian team that sealed Canada’s new deal with the EU. 

What about Northern Ireland?

This remains the single most contentious part of the Brexit deal because of the checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. De Rynck said in January that the EU and the UK would have to be “very disciplined” if they were to get a new system for trading in Northern Ireland ready for 31 December.

Brussels and Irish political leaders are already alarmed by Johnson’s repeated declarations that there will be no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, even though some of these will be mandatory.

Helen McEntee, Ireland’s minister for European affairs has contradicted him directly, telling Sky News’s Sophy Ridge: “There will be no checks 

Northern Ireland businesses have urged the government to set up a working group urgently so that the detail of the checks can be determined quickly.

Lisa O’Carroll Brexit correspondent

Before the announcement, Downing Street acknowledged that businesses and travellers would be facing stricter border controls if the UK moves away from regulatory alignment with the EU.

“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act,” Johnson will say, according to snippets released in advance by Downing Street. “This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances – your family’s life chances – should depend on which part of the country you grow up in.”

On Friday afternoon Johnson and his cabinet are due to hold a cabinet meeting in strongly pro-leave Sunderland, where the first result was declared on the night of the 2016 EU referendum.

But while Nigel Farage and his allies prepared to hold a festive gathering in Parliament Square – albeit without alcohol, fireworks or amplified music owing to stringent local bylaws – Downing Street appeared desperate to avoid overt triumphalism.

Official celebrations run only to a few union flags hung close to parliament and opaque plans for a “light display” beamed on to Downing Street, a building inaccessible to the general public. Johnson was due to hold a reception inside, billed as being mainly for staff, with no celebrity guests expected.

In another sign of Downing Street’s desire to keep control of the narrative, Johnson’s message was filmed by an in-house TV crew rather than the BBC or another TV station for pooled footage. No 10 said the message would be made available to all those who wanted it.

Friday night will bring very little in the way of tangible change, as the UK will move straight into a transition period involving continued EU rules to the end of 2020.

On Thursday Downing Street reiterated the message that UK firms would then face extra paperwork and checks on goods at cross-channel borders under Johnson’s plans to diverge from EU standards.

This will be seen as a significant starting point for trade talks with the EU, which has consistently demanded alignment on regulations in exchange for zero tariffs and quotas – a so-called “level playing field”.

The prime minister’s spokesman said businesses should expect to face “extra processes” and not accept anything that makes the country a “rule-taker”.

He said: “The manifesto on which the government was elected was very clear that there will be no alignment. We have always been very clear that we are leaving the EU’s customs union and single market and that means that businesses will have to prepare for life outside of these. The manifesto spelled out those two things very clearly.”

Johnson is due to make a speech early next week setting out plans for future trade arrangements.

UK nationals are being advised to expect new arrangements for travelling to the EU next year. A page of official government advice says people taking pets should start planning four months in advance, while drivers will need insurance documentation, and mobile phone roaming charges could return.

One change that is definitely happening on Friday night is the disappearance of the Department for Exiting the European Union. Its offices inside the Cabinet Office will be vacated and civil servants moved to other departments after a final visit of thanks from Johnson.

Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, will become a backbench MP – at least until an imminent reshuffle – and will be eligible for a payoff.

His Labour shadow, Keir Starmer, the frontrunner to become the new Labour leader, called for Friday to mark a new political beginning.

“Now the leave-remain divide must end,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian. “Defining people by how they voted in June 2016 merely upholds a divide that we must overcome. There are no leavers or remainers any more. In 2024 there will be no leave or remain constituencies.”

The Liberal Democrats’ interim leader, Ed Davey, said in a speech in Manchester that Friday would be a “heartbreaking” day for this party. He said: “I am determined that pro-Europeans can and must play a leading role in our country’s future. Britain’s European story does not end tomorrow.”


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