Divisive Johnson, improbable Corbyn

As trade talks beckon, pound to stay strong

Britain will leave the European Union at breakneck speed, unleashing months of difficult trade negotiations with Europe, following a sweeping Conservative victory in yesterday’s election, ending three and a half years of Brexit deadlock.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson – just weeks after suffering a series of apparently career-blighting parliamentary setbacks – becomes the Conservatives’ most dominant prime minister since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. In the 650-seat House of Commons, Johnson’s party finished more than 160 seats ahead of opposition Labour, which slumped to its worst result since 1935.

On the brink of initiating pre-Christmas legislative changes in parliament to allow the UK to leave the EU by 31 January, Johnson said he had the chance ‘to respect the democratic will of the people’ and ‘unlock Britain’s potential’. President Donald Trump, congratulating Johnson, said a new US trade deal could be more lucrative than any with the EU.

Johnson, a frequently divisive figure, had the good fortune of pitting his trademark mix of flexibility, bonhomie and opportunism against the improbable Jeremy Corbyn, the leftwing Labour leader whom few voters considered prime ministerial material. The outcome was seldom in doubt during the six-week campaign, with pollsters’ findings of a stable 10-11 percentage point Conservative lead vindicated at the ballot box.

The outcome comfortably avoids the semi-paralysed ‘hung parliament’ that has bedevilled UK decision-making in the past two years. Johnson can seek to implement his attempts at inclusive Conservatism in a country seeking post-EU direction. At the helm for the next five years, Johnson can claim near-unfettered leadership status. By contrast, opposite numbers in nearly every other major industrialised country face substantial short-term electoral challenges.

He will be able to stamp his mark on government changes including appointing a new governor of the Bank of England, possibly before Christmas, to replace Mark Carney, who will step down on 31 January. The size of his majority and the strength of sterling – likely to persist – give Johnson leeway to make an unconventional choice (just as Carney was seven years ago) from the diverse contenders.

Johnson was able to profit from three distinct advantages. UK voters – who opted 52% to 48% to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum – wished to resolve Brexit uncertainty without a further plebiscite and more political prevarication. They were suspicious of socialist ideology favoured by Corbyn and other Labour leftwingers, who failed to engineer a resurgence of popular support achieved in the 2017 election against Theresa May, Johnson’s luckless predecessor. Further, Johnson, a former mayor of London whose dishevelled demeanour belies considerable organisational skills, fought a disciplined campaign, making only a few characteristic gaffes.

An important task will be to quell anti-Brexit resentment and head off another independence referendum (following the previous vote in 2014) in pro-EU Scotland. The Scottish National Party won 48 of the country’s 59 seats – 13 more than it won in 2017. The UK agreed concessions on Northern Ireland’s status under an exit deal agreed with Britain’s EU partners in October, which failed to get full parliamentary ratification, leading to yesterday’s election. The UK agreement, in reality little changed from the divorce agreement May reached a year ago but failed to push through parliament, could spur the emboldened SNP again to seek separation from the rest of the UK. Johnson’s Conservatives reject any idea of Westminster sanctioning another Scottish vote.

Labour yesterday suffered a spectacular series of losses to the Conservatives in traditional working class, Leave-voting heartlands in northern England and Wales. The UK opposition party now joins a melancholy group of long-established leftwing parties in Germany, France and Italy, all swept from pivotal positions in the last decade. The decisive Conservative win prompted relief in Brussels and around Europe, as EU decision-makers welcomed an end to Brexit delay. ‘France’s position for months has been a request for clarity,’ Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, said. ‘This clarification appears to have arrived.’

David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.

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