Commentary: Boris Johnson’s win and the shifting sands of politics in the UK

Commentary: Boris Johnson’s win and the shifting sands of politics in the UK

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a huge victory, and Brexit is a go but it doesn't not mean that it is a done deal, says Laura Hood.

Boris Johnson,Jeremy Corbyn compositeon polling day
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photos both taken on Dec 12, 2019. (Photo: AFP/ Tolga AKMEN, AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

LONDON: Boris Johnson is now confirmed to have secured a big victory in the British general election.

He went into the poll at the head of a minority government and has emerged with a significant majority. With just a few seats left to count, his Conservative Party holds 362 seats in the 650-seat Westminster parliament.

The Labour Party has suffered its worst loss in decades – and its fourth general election defeat in a row, ending up with 203 seats. The Scottish National Party looks to have made significant gains in Scotland.

That would now appear to strengthen the case for a second Scottish independence referendum, posing another huge constitutional question for the UK.

While the polls had generally pointed towards a victory for Johnson, it had been predicted to be small and a hung parliament looked like a possibility according to some pre-vote opinion polling. So how did the UK come to this decision and what happens now with Brexit?

Britain's general election 2019
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he arrives at a polling station, at the Methodist Central Hall, to vote in the general election in London, Britain, December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

BREXIT IS A GO

Johnson’s majority puts him in a position to comfortably pass his Brexit deal through parliament after several years of stalemate.

He can now be expected to plough ahead at speed, given that all his parliamentary candidates agreed to support the deal’s passage through parliament ahead of the election. His plan is to leave the EU by Jan 31, 2020.

This is therefore a good moment to read over what exactly that deal entails. In brief, it is a relatively hard form of Brexit – although whether it will stay that way is up for debate now that Johnson has such a significant majority and potentially the freedom to soften his position.

READ: Commentary: UK heads to polls to break years-long gridlock on Brexit

READ: Commentary: Hard choices await any post-Brexit Britain

Under the current plan, the UK will leave the single market and customs union, ending free movement with a plan to introduce a points-based immigration system. But there remain questions about potential trade friction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Research associate at the UCL European Institute Oliver Patel noted that there is much still to be agreed on between Brussels and the UK - on a tight timetable.

“The UK and the EU have between the withdrawal date and Dec 31, 2020 (the end of the transition period) to negotiate and ratify the full agreement on their future relationship, which should govern relations in a vast range of areas such as trade, migration, security, foreign policy and data,” he said.

BUT BREXIT IS NOT DONE

It’s hard to deny that this election appears to have been won at least partly because of one promise – that Johnson will “get Brexit done”. He repeated his three-word mantra over and over again, at every opportunity.

But as multiple experts have pointed out in recent weeks, this is an optimistic take. Even if Johnson does meet his self-imposed deadline of Jan 31, 2020, the story is far from over.

An anti-Brexit protester waves an EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London
An anti-Brexit protester waves an EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Historian Helen Parr sees a long road ahead, and one that could still end in what is effectively a no-deal Brexit.

“The reality is that government resources will be tied up on Brexit for the foreseeable future. Equally, the idea that the UK will be free to do as it pleases the moment the withdrawal bill passes through the House of Commons is an illusion. Britain will find its freedom of action constrained by what sort of future relationship it can agree with the EU and other trading partners. Those questions will take years to answer, if they are ever satisfactorily resolved,” she said.

Johnson has ruled out extending the transition period so if he sticks by that and then can’t strike a trade deal by the end of 2020, the UK may depart without one.

A NEW POLITICAL IDENTITY

This election has dramatically redrawn the electoral map in the UK. Chunks of the country that have traditionally been considered Labour strongholds have turned Conservative.

This is a switch of allegiances that would have been considered unthinkable just a few years ago.

Political identities in the UK are now as often defined by your position on Brexit as by which party you support

“Tellingly, even in mid-2018, two years after the referendum, only just over 6 per cent of people did not identify with either Leave or Remain," said sociology professor Geoffrey Evans.

"Compare this with party political attachment, where the percentage with no party identity increased from 18 per cent to 21.5 per cent over same period – in part due to the decline of UKIP. Only one in 16 people don’t have a Brexit identity whereas more than one in five have no party identity.”

This election is arguably the culmination of this process. So many voters in Labour’s so-called “red wall” in the midlands of England and northern England appear to have voted in a way they probably wouldn’t have countenanced just five years ago, delivering the biggest Conservative majority in years.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR LABOUR?

This loss will certainly force some deep soul searching within the Labour Party.

FILE PHOTO: Jeremy Corbyn speaks during a general election campaign event in London
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a general election campaign event in London, Britain, Nov 27, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville)

Its leader Jeremy Corbyn opted to fight this election on an ambitious platform of reform, pledging to nationalise utilities and even offering free internet access for all. 

He proposed a radical green agenda that would have put the UK miles out ahead of other nations while Johnson didn’t even bother turning up to a debate on climate change. So how could such a bumper package deliver such a dismal return?

Labour will need to look particularly closely at the working class voters it has lost in the country’s former industrial bases.

The party’s recent history with these supporters show its approach has been lacking, according to development professor David Etherington. Years of decline, followed by the financial crash of 2008 left many people in these “left behind” regions wanting change. And many saw their opportunity in 2016.

READ: Commentary: How the West lost its way and what can be done to restore social mobility

READ: Commentary: Undecided UK voters feel overwhelmed with information

Labour has struggled for years to define its position on Brexit. Even though it has more recently solidified its stance, pledging a second referendum, it also sought to make the 2019 election about anything other than Brexit. 

There will certainly now be questions about whether these were the right decisions.

IS SCOTLAND ON THE WAY OUT?

The Scottish National Party surge leaves it in charge of nearly every constituency in Scotland. The nationalists have put calls for a second independence referendum at the centre of their campaign.

The first minister Nicola Sturgeon is capitalising on anti-Brexit sentiment to push for another go at breaking away from the United Kingdom.

The reason why support for independence has risen is perhaps that a section of Remain voters have switched sides: The SNP’s Remain credentials help the party to distance its brand of civic and cosmopolitan nationalism from the anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalism in a number of countries, said politics lecturer William McDougall.

As a result, the pro-independence vote which was already largely pro-EU is now even more solidly in favour of Scotland staying in the EU.

A strong Conservative majority in Westminster certainly makes it hard to see how another independence referendum would actually come about, but for now, a big statement has been made in the shift towards Sturgeon’s party.

BBC Question Time election special in Sheffield
Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon speaks to an audience during BBC Question Time election special in Sheffield, Britain November 22, 2019. Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS

WHO IS BORIS JOHNSON REALLY?

Johnson has been prime minister for a few months already but he can be a tricky character to pin down – especially when he’s hiding in fridges.

From his chequered 14-year career in journalism to his tenure as London mayor, during which time he showed a penchant for vanity projects, Johnson has made some surprising choices in his various careers.

But this all appears to have been priced into the 2019 vote.

Johnson is regularly accused of hiding who he really is, but maybe that’s not actually the case at all. He has left enough clues along the way for us to build a picture of the man he is – and the British public has decided they are fine with it.

Laura Hood is Politics Editor at The Conversation. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.