Britain Braced For Brexit II: The Sequel – OpEd


ByAndrew Hammond*

The Conservatives have become the first UK political party since the 19th century to win an increased number of seats in a fourth consecutive term of office. The result is a personal triumph for Boris Johnson, but he is already under intense pressure to deliver on his election promises, including withdrawal from the EU, which is now likely in early 2020.

The result is not a monumental surprise; the Conservatives were long forecast to emerge as the largest party in the House of Commons. But in an era of great political volatility, and tactical voting, plus the first December election for over a century, the result was never certain. 

The new UK electoral map reveals flux, and potential re-alignment, in the nation’s politics. The Tories won a swath of longstanding Labour working-class strongholds (the “Red Wall”) in the Midlands and north of England, including Tony Blair’s former seat in Sedgefield.  

This underlines voter volatility after a series of political and economic shocks in the past decade, from the 2016 Brexit referendum result to the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Thursday’s result stems from several factors, including the decision of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party not to stand candidates in seats held by Conservatives, which consolidated the Leave vote from 2016’s referendum.

While Johnson’s personal popularity fell during the campaign, and voter concerns about his trustworthiness grew, he will nonetheless take personal credit for the Conservative victory.  His appointment as prime minister last summer was a clear turning point in the polls; the Tories have led since then, after Jeremy Corbyn had held Theresa May to more-or-less level-pegging from 2017.

Moreover, the Conservatives had strong message discipline around their core campaign slogan of “Get Brexit Done.”  In this sense, Johnson was successful in framing the election around the UK’s departure from the EU.

This core message is, in fact, misleading; even if the UK leaves in January, there will be years of negotiations with Brussels over the terms of any final comprehensive trade deal.

The Tory success in overcoming this fundamental reality underlines the political salience and emotional appeal of Europe as a UK election issue, eroding the classic left-right divide.  In 2017, for the first time in modern UK history, issues such as Europe were at least as important in determining overall voting behaviour as traditional right-left party allegiances, with high levels of switching between Conservative and Labour. 

Last week’s result was Labour worst performance since the 1930s. Leader Jeremy Corbyn and finance spokesman John McDonnell will both stand down, while party members reflect on its direction. For many Labour supporters, the core fact is that aside from Tony Blair’s victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the party has not won an election since Harold Wilson’s victory in October 1974.  

Despite the Conservatives’ current buoyancy, Johnson’s honeymoon may be brief; there is immediate pressure to deliver on several fronts, especially EU withdrawal. In the likely event that this happens in early 2020, there will be a transition period from then until at least the end of the year. Negotiations will move away from the three core Article 50 issues — the UK’s financial settlement, citizen rights, and the Irish border — to a full spectrum of topics from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer that represent a new order of complexity.

The proposed transition phase of less than a year is unlikely to be nearly long enough to achieve even what Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has called a “bare bones” agreement, let alone a final comprehensive deal of the kind that took Canada and the EU about seven years.  Nevertheless, Johnson made it a central election pledge not to extend the end-2020 deadline, threatening a new Brexit “crisis” next year unless he reneges on this promise.

Unless the prime minister indeed executes a U-turn, there is a growing prospect next year of yet another cliff-edge in negotiations that would again, in effect, raise the specter of a no-deal EU exit; far from bringing stability, Johnson could yet reawaken the political and economic uncertainties of 2019 rather than “Get Brexit Done.”

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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