westminster brexit

The Week In Westminster: Brexit is finally here

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

Well, it’s actually happening gents. As of 11pm this evening the UK will no longer be part of the EU. Whether you see that as a cause for despair or celebration, if you’re living in the UK it is going to effect you so it pays to know what’s going on. From the lead up to the big moment to what happens next (plus a quick round-up of all the other important political news of the week), read on for our guide to everything you need to know…

Is Brexit actually happening this time?

Yes. There’s no going back now. The bills have been debated, signed and ratified. When you wake up tomorrow the UK will no longer be part of the EU. It’s a momentous shift which will affect the way the UK deals with whole swathes of the world – and, as yet, no-one quite knows what the outcome is going to look like.

People across the EU are marking the occasion in a variety of ways. For the 48% of the UK that voted to remain, it will be a subdued and melancholic moment, with many already expressing their regret and dismay on social media and official figures showing the number of Britons applying for non-UK passports has quadrupled since 2015.

Perhaps surprisingly, Boris ‘Get Brexit Done’ Johnson and his government are showing similar restraint. Last weekend a commemorative 50p coin featuring the phrase ‘Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’ was unveiled, with three million entering circulation on 31 January. A pre-recorded message from Johnson will also air at 11pm, in which he is expected to urge ‘unity’ across the country, while a countdown clock will be beamed onto 10 Downing Street and Union Jack flags flown in Parliament Square. However, church bells will not ring and Big Ben will not bong while the police have also refused to extend the curfew on fireworks past 11pm.

One person who is characteristically not exercising any restraint is Nigel Farage. The MEP and Brexit Party leader made a somewhat embarrassing exit from the European Parliament on Wednesday causing his microphone to be turned off during his final speech. He and his fellow Brexit Party MEPs staged a rule-breaking stunt during which they stood and waved Union Jack flags while cheering and clapping. In response, remain supporting MEPs burst into a chorus of Auld Lang Syne to drown them out.

Farage, with support from the Leave Means Leave group, will host a celebration in Parliament Square this evening – albeit without fireworks, music or alcohol. Elsewhere, pro-remain groups will be holding anti-Brexit protests at the London Eye, as well as in Brighton and Bournemouth, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan will be holding London Is Open at City Hall – an event designed to give EU Londoners free legal advice and support on what their future in the UK might look like.

What happens next?

In real terms, for now, not much. From 1 February the UK will enter a transition period during which it will remain within the customs union and continue to follow EU law. This period will last until 31 December 2020 and is designed to give negotiators on both sides time to form a new trade deal between the EU and the UK. As previously reported, Johnson has already declined the option to extend this period despite EU lawmakers doubts the period is long enough to create a fully-fledged deal. Should the EU and the UK fail to agree terms by that date, the UK will leave the EU with no deal.

And there is much to discuss. While Johnson argues that negotiations should be simple because the UK will stay aligned with EU rules, experts have pointed out that the government’s wish to leave the customs union, single market and remove the power of the European Courts of Justice over UK law so it can make deals with other countries will make things tricker. There is also far more than just trade on the agenda, the UK has been intertwined with the rest of the EU for so long that decisions must also be made on how the UK and the EU will co-operate on security, law enforcement, aviation standards, data sharing, medicine licenses, freedom of movement, citizen’s rights and access to fishing waters, among others.

Anything else important happen this week?

As it happens, yes, but we know you’re busy so we’ll give you the top line must knows, starting with the latest on the Wuhan coronavirus. On Thursday the World Health Organisation declared it a global health emergency due to fears the virus had spread to countries with weak health systems but emphasised there was no reason for this to interfere with international travel or trade. There have so far been 9,800 confirmed cases across 22 countries, with the first two in the UK confirmed on Friday morning. However, it is important to note that the mortality rate is very low (2% compared to Ebola’s 70%) and the virus has yet to kill anyone outside mainland China.

It’s also been a big week for the British railways. On Thursday it was announced that Northern was to be renationalised from 1 March following years of major disruption. It will now be operated by a newly formed subsidiary of the Department of Transport’s Operator of Last Resort, which is staffed by experienced train managers and reports directly to the government. It’s an uncomfortable announcement for a government that largely supports privatisation – especially since this is the second renationalisation in less than two years, after the East Coast Main Line was brought under government control in May 2018. Elsewhere, Sajid Javid gave the controversial HS2 rail project his backing on Friday despite ballooning costs and huge delays. The government, however, has refused to confirm or deny if Johnson will give it the go ahead in a decision expected next month.

Meanwhile, Johnson has faced criticism from fellow Tories over his plans to allow Chinese telecoms company Huawei to be part of the UK’s 5G rollout while ministers have been told to find 5% savings across all departments in order to boost funds for Johnson’s priority projects: hospitals, schools and levelling the playing field.

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