Will Boris Johnson Go Full Speed Ahead or Wobbly on Brexit?

December 17, 2019 1:15 PM
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REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

The sweeping victory of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party in December 2019 hands him a mandate to "get Brexit done" quickly, as he has promised. In theory, he has the latitude and the votes to engineer a Brexit that is either a "no deal" type of clean break or a lesser break that preserves large portions of the trading and commercial relationship with the European Union. No one knows what he will do, but it is too early to bet against a "soft Brexit" in the end.

The Tories swept back into power with 365 members of parliament (MPs) and a comfortable 40+ majority, leaving just 203 Labour members in parliament. But beneath this massive triumph lie some subtle factors that offer clues to what Prime Minister Johnson can accomplish.

Despite the triumphal results, for example, the Conservative Party did not achieve a massive increase in public support. Its 43.6 percent share of the vote was only 1.2 percentage points more than former prime minister Theresa May's 2017 result. The margin of victory in the United Kingdom's first-past-the-post system was ensured by the dismal performance of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which lost 7.8 percentage points of the vote share since 2017, dropping to 32.2 percent. Corbyn was thus far more of an electoral loser than Johnson was a winner. Should the Labour Party choose a more capable leader (which is far from certain), it could force Johnson to fight hard to defend his newfound Conservative majorities in many previously Labour districts. To do that, the Conservatives must honor their promises to boost spending on the National Health Service (NHS) and other social programs, running counter to the Conservative budget-cutting tradition. For now, at least, the age of austerity and small government in the United Kingdom looks finished under Johnson's version of conservative government.

A second important outcome of the election was the poor performance of "pro-unionist parties" in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party lost more than 5 percentage points in support. And for the first time Northern Ireland elected more MPs supporting Irish unification than continued allegiance to the United Kingdom. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Nicola Sturgeon performed extremely well, adding 13 MPs, reaching a total of 48, while increasing the party's vote share to 45 percent in Scotland. Of significance is that Sturgeon had declared that a strong SNP showing would be interpreted as a public endorsement of a movement to a second referendum on Scottish independence. It seems safe to assume that she and the SNP will now proceed in this direction.

Johnson has rejected calls for another referendum in Scotland, and he continues to disingenuously downplay the effects of his Brexit deal on the UK-Northern Ireland economic relationship. But these anti-unionist verdicts at the ballot box pose risks to UK cohesion if Johnson keeps stonewalling on the issue or, worse, if he imposes a "hard" Brexit on parts of the country that wanted to remain. One might imagine a "Catalonia-style" referendum on independence, even if Johnson opposes it, or some other form of civil disobedience against a hardline Brexit.

Finally, Johnson must now realize that his vow to "get Brexit done!" was as empty as May's widely ridiculed "Brexit means Brexit." In fact, the only difference between the two lies in the time dimension, as Johnson, in keeping with his slogan, seems likely to prioritize speed in implementing Brexit over everything else. This means first that legal Brexit will happen on January 31, 2020. Moreover, the new British government is set to change the law to prevent an extension of the Brexit transition period and deny MPs another vote on a potential "no deal Brexit," setting up another potential cliffhanger at the end of 2020. Of course, Johnson can always change the law again, but the political signal of speed being of the essence for Brexit cannot be missed.

Yet the United Kingdom and EU-27 will not have sufficient time during 2020 to agree on a complex unique new trade and economic relationship before the end of the year. Once the United Kingdom legally leaves the European Union and the Article 50 negotiating framework, and with an extension of the transition period ruled out,1 the two partners will already be essentially legally negotiating "on World Trade Organization terms," and Johnson's frequent claim that these negotiations will be easy, as the United Kingdom and EU-27 share the same starting point, is simply wrong. A quick and shallow tariff- and quota-free trade deal can be negotiated in that time frame. The EU-27 is certain, however, to demand access to British fishing waters and extensive level playing field provisions, so even a shallow free trade agreement (FTA) would require painful political concessions from Johnson with only limited economic gains in return. Johnson could alternatively forge a "Norway-style" option maintaining most EU economic ties with an extensive national security component. EU leaders prefer the latter, having restated in December their "desire to establish as close as possible a future relationship with the UK." To date, the EU-27 has gotten most of what it wanted from the Brexit negotiations.

Faced with hard choices, Johnson could revert to a "no deal Brexit" at the end of the transition period, but his aversion to doing so in October 2019 suggests otherwise. In fact, probably the second most important reason that Johnson won the election—after having hapless Jeremy Corbyn as his opponent—was the political surprise he generated by striking a new Brexit deal with the European Union shortly after becoming prime minister. This move wrongfooted the Liberal Democrats, whose promise to reverse Brexit looked much more undemocratic when compared with a Brexit deal than a "no deal." And it exposed the unwillingness of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to choose between Leave and Remain as political cowardice. All Johnson had to do to upend his opponents was give the EU-27 what they had originally sought from May—a Northern Irish border solution via a new regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.

Many might say that Johnson, given his record, could never endorse a permanent and close relationship with the European Union. But Johnson sold out his allies in Northern Ireland and elsewhere for personal political gain as a matter of habit. One cannot rule out his selling out the party's hardline Brexiteer-wing, reckoning that the electorate cares less about the terms of Brexit than about getting it done by an action-oriented prime minister.

A shallow FTA or a "no deal Brexit" would endear Johnson to his party's sovereigntists and small government adherents but would be economically very painful for the United Kingdom, while remaining close to the European Union would lower the economic costs of Brexit but would impose a political cost on the prime minister and restrict the United Kingdom's sovereignty as a rule taker in the future.

It will be up to the newly reelected Boris Johnson to chart the United Kingdom's path forward in the coming weeks.

Note

1. Under the Withdrawal Agreement, an extension of the transition period beyond December 31, 2020, could be agreed to before July 2020.

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Jacob Funk Kirkegaard Senior Research Staff

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