Brexit is going to get done. But on whose terms?

  • >>Mark Landler, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-12-14 12:50:13 BdST

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory clarifies British politics in one important respect: Efforts to reverse the Brexit referendum are now dead. Britain will leave the European Union next month. But on what terms it will do so remains unclear, perhaps even more so in the wake of the election.

Johnson’s Conservative Party rode a wave of frustrated working-class voters to a decisive majority in Parliament, radically realigning British politics and reshaping Britain’s oldest party. Crucially, that new coalition of voters may also shape the trade agreement that Johnson must now negotiate with Europe — and hence, the nature of his Brexit.

Voters who gave Johnson the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher share few of the free-trade or deregulatory instincts of the Brexiteers who masterminded Johnson’s campaign or filled his last Cabinet. These voters want safe jobs, protection from imports and the restoration of a Britain that vanished in the contrails of the global economy.

That is worlds away from the agile, economically open, lightly regulated Britain that Johnson’s Downing Street brain trust envisions — Singapore-on-Thames, to use their preferred marketing slogan. Reconciling those two models will be difficult, if not impossible, even for an ideologically flexible prime minister.

“It’s the abiding conundrum of Brexit,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “The Conservatives have now become the party of those left behind by the forces of globalisation while also being the party of free trade. All Boris Johnson has to do is satisfy both.”

Labour Party supporters watch television news coverage of the election at the Lexington Pub in north London on Thursday night, Dec 12, 2019. The New York Times

Labour Party supporters watch television news coverage of the election at the Lexington Pub in north London on Thursday night, Dec 12, 2019. The New York Times

Johnson appeared to grasp the challenge. In his ebullient victory speech, the prime minister said he recognised that his new backers across the old Labour heartland in Britain’s Midlands and north were not natural Tories. They are better described as a disaffected rump of Labour Party loyalists, many of whom backed Brexit in 2016 and only “lent” the Conservatives their votes this time around as a way to get the job done.

The prime minister promised to govern as a big-tent Conservative, forsaking the austerity of his Tory predecessors in favour of a social democratic-style spending binge, earmarking billions of pounds to bolster Britain’s schools and the National Health Service, hire 20,000 police officers and build vast public works projects.

“In winning this election, we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before, and people who have always voted for other parties,” Johnson told a cheering crowd in suburban London. “Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not let them down.”

Spending money is likely to be the least of Johnson’s challenges. He is a political chameleon with few fixed principles and an instinct, honed during his years as the mayor of London, to govern from the center. There is support across the political spectrum for an end to austerity, even at the price of ballooning deficits. But the coming negotiation with Brussels will force him into painful trade-offs that cannot be papered over with promises of more money for schools and hospitals.

“Johnson’s entire pitch domestically is the antithesis of Singapore-on-Thames,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He doesn’t have a mandate to eviscerate regulation, and they’ve never faced that contradiction before.”

The Conservative Party has united around a vision of Brexit that would deepen those contradictions by diverging sharply from the EU. Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, which will now sail through Parliament, hews to a hard-line version of Brexit, eschewing participation in the European single market or customs union. The idea is for Britain to develop its own free market.

Johnson has until the end of 2020 to hammer out a trade deal with the EU, an almost impossibly brief time to fashion a bespoke agreement. If he continues to refuse to ask for another extension, as he vowed during the campaign, Britain could yet end up having to trade with Europe on World Trade Organisation terms — the equivalent of a no-deal Brexit.

A sign outside a polling station in east London on Thursday, Dec 12, 2019. Britons are voting in pubs, churches, schools and other polling stations for their next government on Thursday, an important moment for the deeply divided country. The New York Times

A sign outside a polling station in east London on Thursday, Dec 12, 2019. Britons are voting in pubs, churches, schools and other polling stations for their next government on Thursday, an important moment for the deeply divided country. The New York Times

Such a scenario, experts said, would devastate Britain’s automakers, not to mention other manufacturing industries. That would reverberate through the industrial strongholds that the Conservatives carried Thursday.

The new members of Parliament from those districts insist they will be able to curb Johnson’s worst impulses. “We can hold their feet to the fire,” said Lee Anderson, a Conservative who won a longtime Labour seat in the Midlands district of Ashfield. “A Tory candidate in the south is not a Tory candidate in the north.”

That could set up an intraparty battle with an intellectually muscular contingent of Brexiteers who have spent years sharpening their ideas. Some of those people belong to the European Research Group, a hard-line faction that once exerted outsize influence over Johnson, holding him to his pledge not to extend negotiations with Brussels.

In his last government, Johnson surrounded himself with ministers who codified their free-market, deregulatory principles in a 2012 book, “Britannia Unchained.”

But the election results have changed the dynamic in Parliament. Fortified with a 79-seat majority, Johnson can now afford to brush aside the hard-line Brexiteers in his party, should he so choose. A major indication of his intentions could come when he shuffles his Cabinet after Christmas.

If, for example, he replaces ministers like Dominic Raab, a co-author of “Britannia Unchained” and the current foreign secretary, with more centrist figures, it could suggest that Johnson will pursue a softer Brexit.

Johnson also has to contend with resurgent nationalist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which fiercely oppose Brexit and could use that as grounds to break away from the United Kingdom.

Irish nationalists won more seats in Westminster than pro-Britain unionists of Northern Ireland did. A vocal proponent of Brexit, Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party, lost his seat. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party won 48 of 59 seats, leading the party’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, to demand powers to call another referendum on Scottish independence.

The prime minister could be swayed as well by the fact that, however resounding his parliamentary victory, Britain remains deeply divided about Brexit. Indeed, parties that either oppose Brexit or want to rethink Britain’s departure won 52% of the total votes cast, while Conservatives and other pro-Brexit parties won only 46%.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain speaks outside 10 Downing Street in London on Friday, Dec 13, 2019, following his Conservative Party's general election victory. The New York Times

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain speaks outside 10 Downing Street in London on Friday, Dec 13, 2019, following his Conservative Party's general election victory. The New York Times

For the hundreds of thousands who thronged the streets of London to demand a second referendum, this election will be a bitter pill to swallow. Although the groups that campaigned for a do-over never found a narrative to counter Johnson’s call to “Get Brexit Done,” they are likely to mutate into some kind of “rejoin movement” that will continue to agitate.

Some analysts, however, are sceptical that Johnson will reverse course on Brexit. For one, agreeing to a closer alignment with the EU would impose economic costs on Britain that would make it politically unpalatable for the Conservative Party. Moreover, Johnson is unlikely to pick a fight with his party’s establishment.

“Boris is part of the establishment,” Wright of Brookings said, “and Brexit is largely a Conservative establishment project.”

In his victory speech, Johnson voiced little sympathy for those who pined for a second referendum.

“This election means that getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people,” he declared. “I think we’ve put an end to all those miserable threats of a second referendum.”

Still, while Johnson made it clear what he is against, he has not clarified exactly what he is for when it comes to Brexit. “We don’t know what he wants, which is remarkable after such a hard-fought election,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London.

© 2019 New York Times News Service