Two challenges for the winner

13 February 2020, 00:01

To the astonishment of pollsters and voters, Boris Johnson, Britain’s embattled prime minister, has won a resounding election victory, giving the ruling Conservative party their biggest majority for more than 35 years and ending three years of argument over Brexit. He now has a clear mandate for Britain to leave the European Union within the next six weeks.

  Johnson’s crushing defeat of the opposition Labour party was a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn, its elderly Marxist leader, who lost the party’s traditional support among working class voters in swathes of former industrial heartlands in the north of England. But in Scotland the ruling Scottish nationalists won almost all the seats, increasing the chance that they will demand a new referendum on independence and making the break-up of the United Kingdom in the next few years more and more likely.

  Johnson’s win has huge consequences – for politics in Britain, for Europe and for Britain’s relations with the rest of the world. The first clear lesson is that courage – and even a reckless political gamble – pays off. Johnson had a disastrous beginning as prime minister when he took over from Theresa May four months ago, losing seven votes in Parliament in a row, being mocked as an ambitious liar and humiliated by a challenge in the Supreme Court to his authority. But with a combination of bluster, skill, humour, ruthlessness and low cunning, he managed to get a new Brexit deal agreed with Brussels, persuaded Parliament to agree to new elections and then stormed around the country with a clear slogan and a clear message: “Get Brexit Done”.

  It worked. Millions of voters were fed up of three years of argument about Brexit, the political chaos in Parliament and the government’s failure to deal with any other issue. The proposals by the Labour party to try, yet again, to renegotiate a deal and then hold another referendum promised only to prolong the argument and uncertainty. Even worse, the promise by the Liberal Democrats, the small centrist pro-Remain party, to halt Brexit and remain in the EU, was seen as a betrayal of Britain’s 2016 referendum to leave.

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But Johnson also knew that he needed to win over traditional working class Labour voters. And that meant focusing on the basic issues that win or lose all elections around the world: the economy and especially improvements to the underfunded national health service, schools, transport and social care. That tactic also worked. Many working class districts in the north of England, once the heartland of Britain’s industrial strength but now falling further and further behind the richer south of the country, voted Conservative for the first time in more than 50 years. The “solid red wall” of Labour seats that stretched across the north of England was broken down.

   Johnson was quick to pick up the political lessons. He knew that voters were dismayed by the harsh language of politics today and the hate-filled slogans. He called for a “one nation Conservatism” and an end to divisions between regions and classes. He appealed, for the first time, to those who voted to remain in the EU by promising to maintain close and warm relations with Europe. And two days after his victory he visited northern England to underline his promise to spend more on health, education and social services – to make sure that he kept the loyalty of voters who had voted Conservative for the first time in their lives.

  Indeed, Johnson tried almost overnight to transform his image from the right-wing populist to a more centrist unifying figure. But he left no doubt that he will not allow any challenge to his authority in his own party. Ministers who do not support his policies are likely to be sacked. He is determined to be as dominant a figure in the new government as Margaret Thatcher was 30 years ago.

   This demonstration of authority and moderation will silence those who had mocked his ambition or questioned his moral standards (he has a much younger girl-friend living with him in Downing Street, and has had a number of well publicised affairs with other women, including at least one or two illegitimate children). The new respect for him from the press and even from his old enemies in the Conservative party will be an important factor in his relations with the EU. No longer can Brussels count on confusion or division within Britain. Negotiators know that they are facing a British prime minister who can deliver what he promises.

   There is now no doubt the withdrawal agreement will be passed by parliament before the deadline – the third Britain has been given – at the end of January. After that comes a more difficult phase, when Britain and the EU must negotiate a new trade and political relationship during a short transition period of less than a year. At the same time Britain is hoping to start trade talks with other allies outside the EU, especially the United States. All this could take time. It is possible there could be no agreement with Brussels by the end of the talks, and so Britain could still leave without an agreement on future trade, a step that would be disastrous for British industry as well as for the EU. But the other 27 members will be eager to keep good relations with London, and will be ready to make concessions to keep Britain closely aligned to the EU’s standards and rules.

   Johnson’s victory also has effects for the rest of the world. Britain can again turn its attention to global issues – peace in the Middle East, relations with Russia, climate change and other questions that have been ignored for the past three years during the preoccupation with Brexit. Donald Trump made no secret of his wish to see Johnson re-elected and sent warm congratulations. But Johnson will be wary about any warm embrace of Trump and his politics, especially as the American president is deep unpopular in Britain.

  There are two big challenges now facing Johnson. The first is to get the economy moving quickly in order to generate money to pay for the huge investments in health, education and welfare already promised. That means quietly dropping promises to cut back immigration, still vital to the health service and agriculture. It also means keeping many current rules laid down by the EU, to avoid disruption to industry. The right-wing of the party will be furious. But these hardline Brexiteers now have no leverage over Johnson.

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The second challenge is Scotland. The Scottish National Party, dominated by its charismatic leader Nicola Sturgeon, is determined to hold a second referendum on independence, which it is likely to win. That would be a massive constitutional challenge to the rest of the country. Johnson has already said he will not allow a second referendum. But the danger then is that Scotland will hold one in any case – just as Catalonia did in Spain. No one wants to see arrests, riots and demonstrations in Scotland as occurred in Spain. But most Scots dislike the Conservative government, want to remain in the EU and are being swayed by a wave of nationalist feeling. It looks like a collision course.

  The country has now seen evidence of how Johnson can outmanoeuvre his opponents. He has left the Labour party in turmoil and recriminations, and will face little domestic opposition for the next five years. He may yet be able to find a way to outmanoeuvre Sturgeon and avoid a potential break-up of the United Kingdom. 

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