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UK Elections: Let It Be

Cross-interview between Ben Judah and Georgina Wright

INTERVIEW - 16 December 2019

On 12 December, Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister and the Conservative Party resulted as the winning majority in Parliament. As the third general elections in four years, many questions remained unanswered: what do these results mean for Brexit? Was it the unique driving decider of the election? What can British citizens expect from the new relationship between the UK and the EU? What do the votes tell us about British society today? These and several others are addressed by Ben Judah, a Franco-British journalist and Georgina Wright, Senior Researcher Brexit at Institute for Government.

What do the election results mean for Brexit?

GEORGINA WRIGHT

The outcome shows that this was a Brexit election fuelled by widespread Brexit fatigue. The Conservative Party secured an overwhelming majority – the largest since Margaret Thatcher – on the promise to get Brexit done by 31 January and deliver on the outcome of the referendum. This message was particularly powerful among Labour leave seats in the North East of England. Labour’s stance on Brexit - where the party promised to renegotiate a deal with the EU and then hold a referendum - failed to mobilise Remain voters and cost the party the support of many leave voters. It was also an important night for the SNP who scooped up 48 out of 55 seats in Scotland. There are serious questions about how cohesive the UK will be going forward, especially if Scotland continues to push for another independence referendum.

BEN JUDAH
Boris Johnson’s landslide victory marks the end of the long 2016 in British politics: the last three and a half years where the country has in both parties been refighting the EU referendum of that year. The result has been a total victory for the forces of Leave and a total defeat for the forces of Remain. Worse still, for those who still call themselves Remainers, this defeat will roll on. Both major parties will look towards Brexit as the source of their electoral triumph and despair for years to come. Not only will the Conservatives credit Brexit as being what allowed this unprecedented electoral success amongst the white working class to take place but Labour, especially its millennial left, is already pinning the blame on its defeat on its Brexit dilemma.

Remain will now enter history as yet another one of Britain’s many great lost causes.

That dilemma being Labour was unable to reconcile its need to appeal to pro-Remain activists, cities, professional classes and young voters with the desire for Brexit in its traditional heartlands. Remain will now enter history as yet another one of Britain’s many great lost causes. As for any Rejoin campaign, my strong sense is it has lost any hope of the Labour Party being its carrier before it even began.

What are the expectations of British citizens towards the new relationship between the UK and the EU?

GEORGINA WRIGHT

It is obviously hard to say without generalising. But clearly the outcome shows that, on the whole, British voters want to move on from Brexit and were tired of the Brexit deadlock in Parliament. It is not clear that most voters are aware of the challenges that lie ahead: the EU has already made clear they believe that negotiating and passing a trade deal within 11 months to be hugely ambitious. 2020 will be bumpy with most options still firmly on the table: a softer Brexit, a very basic deal and no deal. A healthy majority in Parliament means the Prime Minister may have more leeway: after all, he no longer needs to rely on all his MPs to pass a Brexit deal in Parliament and can afford to disappoint some; but his strength in Parliament does not mean he can necessarily get the deal he wants out of Brussels. The outcome of negotiations will depend on the Prime Minister’s ambitions, what the EU is ready to offer in return and whether the negotiations can be completed in time.

BEN JUDAH

Boris Johnson, armed with a very comfortable majority will get to define exactly what Brexit means. This now means Britain will certainly leave both the Customs Union and the Single Market with Brexit. But, as many others have pointed out during this campaign, if the Conservative Party is to base its hegemony on seats representing traditionally Labour white working class small towns, it must become their party too and that also goes for their economic interests. These voters simply do not expect the next few years to bring serious damage to the local economy where they live. My expectation is the Prime Minister will now seek a trade deal with the EU with just enough divergence with the EU standards rulebook to allow a trade deal with the United States to take place whilst keeping as much of that alignment he can square with that goal in order to minimize the disruption to industry, trade in good and supply lines that run through these towns.


What do the votes tell us about the UK today?

GEORGINA WRIGHT

This vote will determine much more than the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Prime Minister now has the power to reshape domestic policy without having to rely on all his MPs or opposition votes. The outcome also poses serious questions for the future of the Labour Party and the state of the Union. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has already announced that the SNP will be pushing for an independence referendum.

Social divides and values, as well as Brexit, are becoming new fault lines in British politics.

Meanwhile, the future of Northern Ireland is also being openly discussed. Under the current withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland will already be subjected to more EU rules and regulations than the rest of the UK. This shows that the country remains divided – but no longer along economic lines. Social divides and values, as well as Brexit, are becoming new fault lines in British politics.

BEN JUDAH

There has been a rush by both defeated Remainers and supporters of the Labour Party to say that Boris Johnson’s victory for Brexit means Scottish independence is a near certainty given the country’s stunning returns for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which defiantly favoured remaining in the EU. Less discussed however is that independence becomes vastly harder and economically costlier for Scotland once Britain leaves the bloc. Given Britain will now be leaving both the Customs Union and the Single Market any future border between England and Scotland would have to be a hard border, as hard as any of the EU’s other external borders, with no treaty like the Good Friday Agreement with the Republic of Ireland binding both parties to keep it an open border. The nightmare scenario for Scottish nationalists is that Brexit not only kills Corbynism, but also their dream of independence by making the break much harsher and economically disruptive than voters may want to handle. Especially, given the fact Scotland risks having its membership application vetoed as a breakaway state by Spain to send a message to Catalonia and having to commit to join a very unpopular Euro. Nationalist promises of an open border, easy EU membership and keeping the Pound risk now being exposed as unattainable unicorns in the years ahead — or even a future referendum.

 

Copyright: DANIEL SORABJI / AFP

 

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