Will the real Boris Johnson now stand up?
For three years, the Brexit faultline has split not just Britain’s political parties, but whole families and friends, and Parliament has been gridlocked. Boris Johnson’s election campaign message — “Get Brexit Done” — resonated with its simplicity. Now, having correctly judged the mood of the British people, Johnson is back in 10 Downing Street with a thumping majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons.
Markets were quick to react: The pound soared to a 19-month high and the FTSE added £30 billion in value. This is easy to understand, because business needed certainty about Brexit one way or the other. Shares in companies that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had pledged to nationalize did particularly well, adding in excess of £6 billion to their combined value.
Cuuriously, the Conservative Party’s 43.6 percent share of the vote was an increase of only 1.2 percentage points from the 2017 election. The Liberal Democrats have one seat fewer, but actually increased their vote share. Labour’s loss of 7.9 percent vote share and 59 seats was their worst result since the 1930s.
How, then, did the Tories add 47 seats? First, they were helped by the the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, in which the national vote proportion is less important than who wins each of the 650 constituencies. Second, voters failed to warm to Labour leader Corbyn. Third, while the EU “remain” vote was split, the “leave” camp was united, helped by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s decision not to contest seats held by Conservative MPs.
The result was a Tory tidal wave across England and Wales, comparable in living memory only with election victories by Clement Attlee in 1945, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997. Gone are the days when the centrist politics of Blair, John Major and David Cameron won elections. Politics has become more polarised and divisive, a phenomenon in many Western democracies, particularly the US; Britain has truly arrived in the age of populism.
No Conservative prime minister since Thatcher has had the luxury of such a massive majority, which gives Johnson the headroom to define his policies and ease them through Parliament. Brexit, as he promised, will be done, and the UK will leave the EU on Jan. 31.
While England and Wales united behind Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” message, Scotland united behind the Scottish National Party, reflecting the country’s strong “remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The SNP gained 13 seats, and now hold 48 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies (a close call for former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who had promised to skinny dip in Loch Ness if they reached 50). The SNP leader, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was quick to claim a mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence. She was equally quickly rebuffed by Downing Street, but this issue will not go away.
In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two seats, including that of parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds. The DUP’s “reward” for keeping a minority Conservative government in power for more than two years was a Brexit agreement that effectively establishes a hard customs border down the sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, anathema to a party whose raison d’etre is remaining part of the UK. For the first time, Northern Ireland now has more nationalist than unionist MPs, suggesting growing support for unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Combined with the nationalist entrenchment in Scotland, this presents a threat to the UK’s integrity that cannot be ignored for long.
Other than that, what now for Boris? No Conservative prime minister since Thatcher has had the luxury of such a massive majority, which gives him the headroom to define his policies and ease them through Parliament. Brexit, as he promised, will be done, and the UK will leave the EU on Jan. 31, but the hard part — negotiating the future relationship — begins then. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were quick to say that the closer the UK remained aligned with EU rules and regulations, the easier a deal would be, although that may preclude the “great trade deal” with the US to which Donald Trump has alluded many times.
Johnson has always been a political chameleon, and no one knew where he really stood; now his parliamentary majority gives him the opportunity to be who he wants to be. Will we get Boris the liberal Mayor of London? Will it be Boris the undiplomatic foreign minister? Or Boris the wily operator who embraced the far-right Brexiteer wing of his party to achieve his aim of leading both it and his country? His first Cabinet reshuffles — a minor one this week, and a major clear-out expected at the beginning of next year — will provide an inkling of an answer to that question.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources