Politics

Johnson triumphs in UK election: What’s next?

Sir Peter Westmacott featuring as an expert for The Atlantic Council – 13/12/2019

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to a major victory on December 12, flipping forty-seven seats to give him a comfortable majority in the next Parliament. Johnson—who pushed for the early election after his withdrawal deal with the European Union failed to pass Parliament—vowed on December 13 that his new government “will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes.”

The Labour Party lost fifty-nine seats and the Liberal Democrats shed one seat, handing the Conservatives their largest parliamentary majority since 1987. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has announced his intention to resign and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson lost her seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP)—which gained thirteen seats despite a rough night for the other pro-Remain parties.

Johnson’s first task in his new term as prime minister will be to finally pass a withdrawal agreement with the European Union, nearly eight months after the original March 29 deadline to do so. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said that European leaders now “expect that the British parliament will vote as soon as possible on the withdrawal agreement. We are ready to start the next phase.”

Atlantic Council experts react to the Conservative victory in the United Kingdom parliamentary elections:

Sir Peter Westmacott, a distinguished ambassadorial fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and a former UK ambassador to the United States, France, and Turkey:

“After three and a half years, the electorate was tired of non-government and susceptible to Boris Johnson’s simple message of “let’s get Brexit done.” Conservatives skillfully ensured that the prime minister was not exposed to any searching interviews or difficult press conferences. This had an impact even in traditional Labour seats in the manufacturing areas in the north of England and the Midlands—likely to be worst hit by the UK’s departure from the European single market. Some Labour voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Conservative took the Brexit Party option, further weakening their party’s performance.

“Much of the electorate seems to have bought the Johnson message that electing a Conservative government will mark the end of the Brexit process. In fact, it only signals the beginning of the real negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.

“Despite performing well in the 2017 general election called by Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn turned out to be a liability for the Labour Party. So did his equivocal position on Brexit. Undecided voters were more spooked by Corbyn’s hard left manifesto and the prospect of higher taxes and sweeping nationalizations than they were by the damage which Johnson’s Brexit agenda may do to the country.

“Tactical voting between the different Remain parties failed to take off and keep alive the prospect of a second referendum which would have followed from the election of a hung Parliament: it is now certain that Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Bill will be approved by the new Parliament in January. There will not be a second referendum.

“Looking ahead, Boris Johnson now has a big enough majority to do as he pleases, and to choose a cabinet based on competence rather than (as of now) personal loyalty and readiness to contemplate a no-deal Brexit. The big question is what kind of Brexit he will seek to negotiate during 2020, and whether he can get the job done by the scheduled end of the transition period in twelve months’ time. “It seems as though Johnson is reluctant to go for “no-deal” having understood the damage that this would do to the UK economy, despite having felt a political need to keep the option open while seeking to marginalize hardline Brexiteers like Nigel Farage and the European Research Group (ERG) faction within his own Conservative party. He seems to be instinctively a ‘One Nation Tory’ but no-one is quite sure.

“Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is finished. This is the worst result for Labour since the 1930s. Where does the party go now? If it chooses another hard-left leader in place of Corbyn, it is likely to remain in opposition for years to come. Will pragmatism, and a desire to win, take precedence over ideology? Again, nobody knows.

“In Scotland, the SNP is resurgent, having won forty-eight of the fifty-nine seats north of the border. The party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says voters have given a clear message to Boris Johnson that Scotland does not wish to be dragged out of the European Union against its will. Johnson says he does not intend to allow another referendum on independence, but there is a sense that yesterday’s result increases the chances of Scotland going its own way in the foreseeable future. A similar story in Northern Ireland, where the Nationalists did better than the Unionists and there is a sense that Boris Johnson’s version of the EU Withdrawal Bill weakens the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK while strengthening links to the Republic of Ireland.

“Turnout was around 67 percent—two points less than in the 2017 referendum. Admittedly, it was winter (when the UK never normally holds elections). And it looks as though some Labour voters stayed home. But it still feels like a low turnout for what was widely billed as the most important general election in recent British history.”

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