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Brexit: It's been five years since voters decided to leave the EU and the journey has not always followed the expected path


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It's been five years since an historic referendum saw voters back Brexit.

It divided opinion like no other, cost two Prime Ministers their jobs and led to a surprising switch in political allegiance for a former Kent MP.

Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP. Picture: John Westhrop
Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP. Picture: John Westhrop

And depending on where you stood, it would either sink the UK economy or open up new international markets that would lead to greater prosperity.

The journey out of the EU has not always followed the expected path. And the consequences on both a political and practical level have confounded many predictions.

Our political editor Paul Francis reports...

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Brexit: The issues, the debate, the decision - five things you might not have expected

1. Gridlock Kent? How traffic has kept moving - sometimes slowly

There was no shortage of gloomy forecasts that Brexit would lead to traffic Armageddon on Kent’s roads, with gory predictions that lorries would be stuck on the M20 and other routes leading to the Channel ports would be blocked for miles and miles, ruining holidays, destroying lorry-loads of perishable goods and paralysing the roads for locals.

The deeply unloved Operation Brock may have raked in money from speeding fines but it and other traffic contingency measures did the job they were supposed to.

True, there were one or two blips along the way and the lorry park at Sevington, Ashford, continues to make life difficult for those living nearby but the county has kept moving, albeit at a slower pace.

Lorries queue at the Eurotunnel terminal. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Lorries queue at the Eurotunnel terminal. Picture: Barry Goodwin

2. An unexpected defection from a former Kent MP

If the former Maidstone and Weald MP Ann Widdecombe was a stick of rock, she would probably have the word ‘Conservative’ running through her. Until, that is, she unexpectedly came out of retirement and announced she would be standing as a Brexit Party candidate in the European Parliament election in 2019.

She did so in protest at the British government's failure to negotiate a deal; she won a seat but it was in the South West region.

She said leaving the party she had stood for was a wrench; it certainly went down badly with her former association.

She was stripped of her role as association president but was typically defiant, saying she could “campaign vigorously and convince my fellow voters that this time it is imperative to fire a very loud warning shot across the bows of the parties they normally support".

David Cameron stood aside after the referendum. Picture: The Prime Minister's Office
David Cameron stood aside after the referendum. Picture: The Prime Minister's Office

3. Moving out of Number 10: Brexit’s political casualties included two Prime Ministers

Leaving the EU meant leaving Downing Street for two occupants: David Cameron stood aside after the referendum, saying that as a remainer, he was not the one to lead the UK out of the EU - despite saying he would do so.

Announcing his unexpected decision, he said he had wanted the country to remain but the British people made “a different decision to take a different path".

"As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” he added. He later stood down as an MP, leaving frontline politics altogether.

His successor, Theresa May moved into Downing Street without even needing a vote but endured a torrid time in office.

Theresa May resigned
Theresa May resigned

She made a catastrophic miscalculation when, after triggering Article 50 to start the withdrawal process, she called a snap election to strengthen her hand in dealing with the Brexit issue.

But she lost a working majority and an uncomfortable spell followed in which she tried and failed to get a Brexit deal passed by MPs. Confidence in her drained away and she eventually quit as leader.

4. Boris gets the keys to Downing Street; Farage calls time on his career in politics

As one door shut, another opened: Boris Johnson had withdrawn from the Conservative leadership battle in 2016, saying he was not the man for the job.

It stunned his supporters and was seen as blowing his only chance to get the job he coveted.

Boris Johnson got a second chance to become leader and PM thanks to Brexit. Picture: PA
Boris Johnson got a second chance to become leader and PM thanks to Brexit. Picture: PA

But proving that everything is possible in politics, he got another chance when Theresa May was forced to stand down.

Meanwhile, the man who arguably did more than any other to secure Brexit decided it was time to step out of the political limelight. Nigel Farage announced he was quitting frontline politics and stood down from the Reform Party, which he founded after leading the Brexit Party to victory in the European Parliament election in 2019.

Will he be back? Don't count against it.

5. Shortages of some unusual commodities

Brexit led to all sorts of claims concerning shortages of certain supplies. Among the more unusual claims was one suggesting that there could be a shortage of sperm donors if no deal was agreed.

About 3,000 sperm samples were imported from Denmark to the UK in the last year and Brexit could hold up those imports. Picture: iStock image
About 3,000 sperm samples were imported from Denmark to the UK in the last year and Brexit could hold up those imports. Picture: iStock image

Why? Leaving the EU without a deal would mean we would no longer be covered by EU Organ Directives and EU Tissues and Cells Directives. These cover material from human sperm, eggs and embryos to transplant organs.

According to a government paper, 3,000 sperm samples were imported from Denmark to the UK in the last year and Brexit could hold up those imports.

Brexit: The challenges ahead facing Kent

Getting trade deals done

Among the arguments for leaving the EU was that the UK would be able to negotiate its own deals on its terms - or at least on some of its terms.

The first such deal is the one recently announced with Australia.

Some farmers in the UK say the deal does not adequately protect the country. Stock picture
Some farmers in the UK say the deal does not adequately protect the country. Stock picture

Some farmers in the UK say the deal does not adequately protect the country from stopping cheap imports undercutting UK prices.

Protecting the fishing industry

A totemic issue for Brexiteers, the UK’s fishing sector counts for a modest contribution to the UK’s GDP.

But under the terms of the Brexit deal, there are fears many could go out of business before reaping the benefits: under the new trade agreement, the UK and Brussels agreed that 25% of EU boats' fishing rights in UK waters would be transferred back to the UK over the next five-and-a-half years.

The UK had originally demanded cuts of 60-80%.

The UK and Brussels agreed that 25% of EU boats' fishing rights in UK waters would be transferred back to the UK over the next five-and-a-half years. Stock picture
The UK and Brussels agreed that 25% of EU boats' fishing rights in UK waters would be transferred back to the UK over the next five-and-a-half years. Stock picture

The right to remain

Fears are growing over the deadline for a scheme set up so EU nationals can apply for ‘settled status’ or, if they have less than five years residence, ‘pre-settled status’ after Brexit.

There are calls for the deadline of June 30 to be extended as under the scheme, those who don’t meet that deadline will have no legal immigration status.

According to provisional Home Office figures to the end of May, 5.6 million (5,605,800) applications had been received since the scheme opened in March 2019 and 5.2million (5,271,300) have been finalised.

Councils in Kent have benefited widely from grants from the EU to support schemes. Stock picture
Councils in Kent have benefited widely from grants from the EU to support schemes. Stock picture

A fair share

Councils in Kent, notably Kent County Council, have benefited widely from grants from the EU to support schemes helping regeneration and investment in socially-deprived areas.

These grants are no longer available and to address that, the UK government has established a shared prosperity fund.

This will "target places most in need across the UK, such as ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and rural and coastal communities."

How much and what priority Kent will have when it comes to distributing money remains to be seen; but with the government's 'levelling up' agenda focusing investment in the "red wall" seats in the north, it could face competition for funds that it did not have before.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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