The surreal landscape in post-election Britain


Both London and Brussels will have to tread with care

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has won a decisive majority, on the back of a big swing from Labour to Conservatives in Leave-voting Britain. Out of 650 seats, the Conservative Party won 365 seats, a gain of 47 seats from the past. 

Support for the Conservatives rose by four points in the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire — the regions of England that voted most heavily in favour of Leave. In contrast, the party’s vote fell back by a point in London and the South East. In Scotland, the improvement for the SNP was reiterated through the vote for the Conservatives falling by as much as four points. Consequently, the SNP ended up gaining 13 more seats in parliament. This gain in numbers has persuaded the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to insist that now, once again, there is no reason why she should not seek a second referendum on Scottish independence. Such a move might open up Pandora’s Box once again.

The electorate, as well as most EU countries, the US, Canada, Japan, and China, is now speculating about who will be Labour’s next leader. Jeremy Corbyn has said that it is up to the National Executive Committee (NEC) – Labour’s governing body — to decide when he goes as leader. He has said that he expects a new leader to be selected early in the new wear. 

There are only a few days left before Christmas but Johnson, as expected, has been very busy. He has been in touch with the new Conservative MPs (many of whom have been elected from constituencies traditionally held by Labour MPs), sorted out a mini cabinet shuffle (to fill posts made vacant by those who stood down ahead of the general election, including the culture and Welsh secretary posts) and also initiated steps required to have a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before Christmas. In this context, the government has decided to add a new clause to the Brexit bill to rule out any extension to the transition period beyond the end of next year. The PM has informed the MPs that this format would put an end to three years of “deadlock and delay.” With the large majority, the bill is expected to pass through parliament in time to meet his promise for the UK to leave the EU on January 31, 2020. The new roller-coaster ride has started. 

The Queen’s speech has set out the government’s upcoming legislative program linked to pledges made during the election campaign — most notably a guarantee on NHS funding. In addition, Johnson will immediately have to start negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU and have it ratified before the end of the post-Brexit transition period that ends on December 31, 2020. 

Strategists within the EU have been carefully considering different aspects now that Johnson has won a remarkable victory. They are worried about certain factors, namely, concerning the UK’s transition and future relationship with the EU. 

The transition period, which effectively preserves the status quo aside from the fact that the UK will no longer be represented in the EU’s institutions or have voting rights, will begin once the UK leaves the EU and is due to last until December 2020. 

At this point, according to Larissa Brunner, there is little hope that a trade agreement between the EU and UK can be reached and ratified between February and December 2020, so an extension will probably be necessary if the UK is not to fall off the cliff edge and end the transition period with no agreement about the future relationship in place. The timing of a request could be tricky. While the EU will need the UK to decide on an extension quickly, Johnson might prefer to delay it, to avoid having to admit shortly after winning the premiership on a promise to “get Brexit done” that the UK would actually need to continue to abide by EU rules for longer and pay more into the union’s budget than planned. 

A surreal landscape is in front of both the UK and also the EU. Both London and Brussels will have to tread the ground in front of them with care. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]