Days to Brexit: 17

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What’s Happening? A giggle over Big Ben’s bongs can’t entirely mask the issues Boris Johnson faces after Brexit.

Britain is limbering up for a marathon set of trade negotiations that will determine its economic course for decades. Meanwhile, the Westminster village is fretting about bells and bongs.

A small but vocal number of MPs want to hear the Great Bell — more commonly known as Big Ben — chime to mark Britain’s departure from the European Union at 11 p.m. on Jan. 31. Problem is, the Elizabeth Tower is being renovated and the mechanism behind the famous clock is away being repaired.

In his first broadcast interview of the year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that rigging up a temporary solution could cost as much as £500,000 ($650,000) — that’s about £45,500 per bong. He suggested the government could crowdfund the money. “We are working up a plan so people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong,” Johnson said. That was in the morning. 

By early afternoon it was clear no such fund exists. Under sustained questioning, Johnson’s spokesman later conceded there was no bong fund for people to donate to, and refused to say what the deadline would be for raising the money. But he did rule out delaying Brexit until Big Ben has been repaired.

It’s entertaining stuff, but it was  a distraction from the rather meatier problems facing lawmakers. While Westminster was talking about bells, the EU warned that it views access to U.K. fishing waters as a prerequisite to any trade deal. Considering that Johnson’s government wants to take back control of British waters after Brexit, this is shaping up to be the first big battle of 2020.

The outcome of the fishing battle will be rather more tangible, too. If the U.K. and EU can’t agree on fisheries, Britain won’t get a deal on goods and services trade. In his interview, Johnson expressed confidence that he will get an agreement. “You always have to budget for a complete failure of common sense — that goes without saying — but I’m very, very, very confident,” Johnson said. 

The prime minister will hope his Brexit survives a little longer than his Big Ben plan.

For daily updates on global trade, including the post-Brexit negotiations, sign up to our Terms of Trade newsletter.

Beyond Brexit

  • Cities could be cut off and airports put at risk if domestic U.K. airline Flybe folds, Charlotte Ryan and Siddharth Philip report.
  • Philosopher Roger Scruton gave British conservatism its head — and its heart. But he didn’t say how to control the forces his vision could unleash, Therese Raphael writes for Bloomberg Opinion.
  • Every quarter we ask five experts where to invest $10,000 right now. Here’s their latest advice.

Brexit in Brief

Dear Sir/Madam | Johnson rejected a demand from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for a new referendum on independence. In a letter, the prime minister refused to transfer the power to hold the vote, saying that all parties had agreed the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event. Sturgeon called Johnson’s position “not politically sustainable.”

Total Recall | French oil giant Total SA is relocating as many as 70 cash managers and related IT workers to Paris from its finance operation in London less than a month before Britain leaves the EU. “It’s a logical decision that’s been quickened by the confirmation that Brexit is taking place,” Chief Executive Officer Patrick Pouyanne said.

Change the Rules | Global investment banks are stepping up lobbying efforts to maintain easy access to the EU’s lucrative market. Without revision, the EU’s so-called equivalence rules could damage business and even threaten financial stability, said the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, a leading advocacy group.

I’ve Started So I’ll Finish | Ireland’s general election will take place on Feb. 8, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar confirmed Tuesday. Saying it’s “only half-time” in the Brexit process, Varadkar asked for more time to finish the job of negotiating with Britain.

Operation Un-Brock | The M20 motorway in Kent is being stripped of barriers put in place for a no-deal Brexit.

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--With assistance from Robert Hutton.

To contact the author of this story: Edward Evans in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adam Blenford at, Chris Kay

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