UK election: Boris Johnson’s whopping majority could pave the way for softer Brexit, analysts say
Friday - 13/12/2019 12:38
A high-stakes gamble has paid off for Britain’s PM Boris Johnson, but there could be a sting in the tail for those that voted for him on Brexit.
He’s pulled off the ultimate high stakes gamble – and been richly rewarded for his success.
Now Boris Johnson could use his large majority to deliver a softer Brexit than anticipated as he’s less beholden to hard Brexiteers in his own party, political analysts say.
Thursday’s election delivered a whopping 364 seats for the Conservatives with 44 per cent of the vote, decimating Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party who were reduced to 203 seats while the Liberal Democrats sunk to 11.
It means Mr Johnson will be free to push his Brexit withdrawal agreement through by January 31, delivering on his pledge to “get Brexit done”. Leaders have not ruled out scheduling extra parliamentary sessions over the Christmas break.
“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes.”
But analysts suggest the invigorated majority could ironically soften the terms of Britain’s exit, particularly given the tight time frame he has pledged for negotiations and the fact he no longer has to rely on hardline colleagues in the European Research Group (ERG) for support.
London School of Economics political science professor Patrick Dunleavy told news.com.au Mr Johnson has “freed himself” from the dependency on the Northern Irish Democratic and Unionist Party (DUP) Theresa May was beholden to.
“He’s really giving himself much more of a free hand. If he wants to get a quick deal from the EU – who is a rottweiler in negotiation – this will be useful for him,” he said.
However Prof Dunleavy added the decision to prioritise timing in the talks means “he’s likely to have to make more concessions … especially in next phase trade negotiations.”
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank agreed: “With a big majority, Boris Johnson can ignore ERG and go for a softer Brexit if he wishes,” he said.
Mr Johnson also faces a key dilemma on Scottish independence after the Scottish National Party (SNP) surged to take 48 seats, with leader Nicola Sturgeon claiming she’d won a mandate for a second referendum on independence.
“I don’t pretend that every single person that voted with SNP will support independence but there has been a strong endorsement of Scotland having a choice,” she said on Friday. “There is no doubt there is a mandate. I have a mandate to offer that choice.”
Prof Dunleavy said the issue is a tricky one for Conservatives as it raises questions of legitimacy, but will likely be kicked into the long-grass of 2021, after Scottish elections in May 2020.
“If at that time the SNP remain a majority … then I think there will be a direct conflict of democratic legitimacies between the Scottish winners and UK winners. And that’s very hard to see how that will resolve in any peaceful or agreeable way,” he said.
But the SNP too would have to factor in Mr Johnson’s formidable campaigning skills and the fact that losing could wipe out their own raison d’etre.
“Even if they had it, they certainly wouldn‘t want to call it and lose it – then independence would be definitely off the table and rational for the party would disappear.”
MASTER STRATEGY OR STROKE OF LUCK?
Mr Johnson’s decision to call a snap poll was a high stakes gamble he could achieve a majority that would end the paralysis in Westminster that has dominated politics in the three years since the Brexit referendum.
Despite being haunted by the prospect of Theresa May’s disastrous election in 2017, the Conservatives – led by Australian political strategist Isaac Levido – gained the largest majority since 1987. They’ve pledged to pass Brexit and implement an “Australian-style immigration system” as a priority.
In his victory speech Mr Johnson thanked the voters who “lent” him their vote despite the party not being their natural home.
“Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper … and you may intend to return to Labour … and if that is the case I am humbled,” he said. “And I, and we, will never take your support for granted.”
But despite promises the messy divorce could soon be over, voters may be served a reality check when it becomes clear the withdrawal agreement is just the first stage of a three part negotiation with Brussels.
After January 31, Britain will go into a transition period until the end of 2020 in which it will try to negotiate a new trade relationship with the EU before the year is out.
Prof Dunleavy said it’s difficult to tell whether the Conservative success was a master plan perfectly executed or a stroke of luck.
“It’s very hard to tell with Boris because he’s got lots of different strands to his politics. He’s the likeable bloke who doesn’t know much about politics who you’d like to have a drink with at the pub. He’s the Brexit villain. He’s the ‘one nation’ Tory. He’s got a chameleon like character,” he said.
One thing to watch for in the coming days is a cabinet reshuffle to exile some of the Brexit hardliners he was forced to draft in previously.
“If he makes cabinet changes towards one nation Toryism then that will signal that he’s serious.
“If it doesn’t happen by Monday it will never happen at all,” the professor said.
Conservative party sources say a “cosmetic” cabinet reshuffle is imminent, with a more far-reaching shake up due by January 31. The budget, due by the end of February, will shape Mr Johnson’s domestic agenda which is set to include more funding for healthcare and police.
‘MORE SKELETONS THAN TUTANKHAMUN’
So how did the man once referred to by former British PM David Cameron as a “greased piglet” pull off the Conservatives best result in decades?
YouGov polls show Mr Johnson is the most well-known and popular Conservative politician, regarded as decisive, strong, likeable, but also incompetent, fake, out of touch and dishonest by members of the public.
The serial womaniser and former journalist has offended everyone from Muslims to single mothers and members of the gay community with his racist, homophobic and sexist comments over the decades. The Daily Mail described Mr Johnson – who has twice been sacked for lying in his career – as an “unlikely political hero” with more “skeletons in his closet than Tutankhamun”.
On Friday he posed at the door of Downing Street smiling and waving with his 31-year-old girlfriend Carrie Symonds, after dropping “engagement hints” about their relationship when being questioned on the campaign trail.
The picture of a happy couple comes months after police were called to Carrie Symonds’ flat by a neighbour who recorded a fight between the pair in which Symonds can be heard yelling “get out of my flat”.
The Eton-educated party leader is also the subject of an official investigation into how an American former model, Jennifer Arcuri, received a GBP100,000 grant for her company and travelled with Mr Johnson on trade missions while he was London mayor. He’s renowned for a string of affairs and has refused to publicly confirm how many children he has.
But despite his torrid past and missteps on the campaign trail – including refusing to look at a photo of a four-year-old boy who was being treated on the floor in an overstretched hospital – it seems voters desire to “get Brexit done” and the toxic combination of Labour’s Brexit prevarication, hard-left agenda and anti-Semitism allegations drove many into Conservative arms.
Now, Mr Johnson has five years in Downing Street in which to shape his vision of Conservative Britain, while Labour faces a decade in the wilderness as it attempts to recalibrate a party riven by factional infighting.
“Labour was disastrously, catastrophically bad, an agony to behold,” she said.
“Corbyn is not an amoral man. Yet his legacy is of historic importance: he did this country profound, nation-splitting, irreparable harm. Had he led his party and the unions full tilt against Brexit, the narrowly lost referendum could have been won. But he and his cabal refused outright … He could have saved us – but he obfuscated.”