After four and a half years of interminable Brexit drama, it was only fitting that parliament be theatrically recalled on the day before New Year’s Eve, in the midst of a raging pandemic, to finally set Britain free.
One thousand, six hundred and fifty one days since the UK voted to leave the EU and finally, on Wednesday, the referendum result 17,410,742 people voted for was honoured with the whirlwind passing through parliament of a trade deal with Brussels.
We may have technically left on January 31, but the transition period had held the UK in a limbo-land of indecision, threatened by fears that our island nation may never regain the sovereignty it squandered by first joining the European Economic Community in 1973 and then signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.
Boris Johnson described how the past 47 years had “bedevilled our post-war history,” with “the old and vexed question of Britain’s political relations with Europe”. Another MP described the parliamentary wrangling since 2016 as a form of “constitutional Kama Sutra” while others described the stand-off between Eurosceptics and Europhiles as a form of “war”.
How ironic, then, that two generations of such bitter division should ultimately be brought to an end by a Prime Minister accused by his many detractors of trying to damage democracy in his dogged determination to “get Brexit done”.
When he was elected with an 80-seat majority last December, there was still no consensus on how Brexit might be settled, despite his promise of “taking back control” of our laws, our money, our trade policy and our waters.
Amid countless suggestions that it would prove “impossible” for the Prime Minister to deliver on those ambitious manifesto pledges in the face of an increasingly intransigent EU, at one point the chances of a deal were put at just 20 per cent.
Yet against all the odds, Mr Johnson was able to unite not only his once-riven party but also both Houses of Parliament behind the idea of the UK and EU finally being treated as sovereign equals.
Insisting Brexit “wasn’t the end but only the beginning,” he hailed a “new chapter” for “Global Britain as a liberal, outward-looking force for good” as he stressed the importance of remaining the EU’s “best friend and ally”.
“We got Brexit done, let’s keep Brexit done,” he concluded.
As the ink was drying on Ursula von der Leyen’s signature on the deal, winging its way to Downing Street via an RAF plane, emotional scenes unfolded in the Commons as MPs echoed the European Commission President’s suggestion that: “It’s time now to put Brexit behind us.”
Sir Bill Cash likened Mr Johnson to Pericles, the ancient Athenian statesman, saying both Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher would be “proud” of the way he had, like Alexander the Great, “cut the Gordian knot” to “save our democracy”. Along with his fellow “spartan” Sir Bernard Jenkin, the original Maastricht rebel evoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Echoing the sentiments of the European Research Group (ERG), former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the deal was “not perfect but a huge advance on where we might have been”. Fishing remained a concern for many, along with the “gaping hole” on services and the red tape that would now be required by Brussels bureaucrats. Hence why Brexiteers Owen Paterson and John Redwood later abstained.
Many leavers cautioned against complacency, with former Brexit secretary David Davis pointing out that: “Freedom is only as good as what you do with it… the EU will of course use the treaty for its own advantage.” Backing the deal amid much criticism of her “Brino” Chequers attempt, Theresa May warned that “sovereignty must not mean isolationism”.
While those on all sides lamented the lack of time given to scrutinise the 1246-page agreement, it was left to the ardent naysayers to voice their minority opposition.
With the remaniac wing of the Conservative party expelled at the last general election, moderate rebels like former business secretary Greg Clark attempted to remind the House that debates on Europe were now “for the history books”.
Not that it stopped committed remoaners like Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and the SNP’s Ian Blackford, seemingly still struggling to come to terms with the 52/48 referendum result.
With Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer having already concluded that “a thin deal, with many flaws was better than no deal,” they found themselves having to square the circle that by voting against the deal they were, by default, backing the no-deal option they had previously decried as a “cliff edge disaster”.
Other politically motivated opponents included Corbynista Diane Abbott, who suggested voting for the “Tory Brexit deal” would be “trashing democracy,” despite a YouGov poll finding 57 per cent of the population believe MPs should back it. She, Mr Corbyn and former shadow chancellor John McDonnell all abstained.
The DUP’s eight MPs rebelled on the grounds the deal did not “undo the detrimental aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas on environmental grounds.
At 14.44, the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill was passed by 521 votes to 73 in the lower chamber before being debated by the House of Lords.
Within hours the legislation looked set to receive Royal Assent after the Queen waited up at Windsor Castle for the crowning moment.
Following arguably one of the most protracted and agonising periods in modern political history, it took just one day for Britain to finally be reborn.