One would not expect, least of all in western democracies, to see people taking to the streets immediately after a new prime minister takes office with a landslide victory. But it has happened in Britain. On the evening of December 13, barely hours after returning to 10 Downing Street after seeing the Monarch and getting assent to form a new government, PM Johnson had to endure the chanting of hundreds of protesters outside, calling for an end to Tory rule. Most notable was the dominance of the angry youth among those protesters. If pre-election opinion polls are to be believed, which predicted the Tory landslide too well, then the overwhelming majority of the young had not voted for Johnson’s premiership.
The December 12 election was a gamble Johnson won with his instinct, that he can exploit the frustrations of a larger populace over Brexit. He made it a single-issue election and campaigned on the message “Get Brexit Done”. He therefore chose to keep his manifesto short and not make too many promises on socio-economic issues. Likewise, the Brexit Party also avoided talking about issues including austerity, health, education, crime, foreign policy, etc. All the other opposition parties thought elections for a five-year fixed term parliament should not be about Brexit only and therefore put emphasis on austerity, which has been affecting a large number of working families. But their catchphrase of “ending austerity, ending poverty” did not work.
It is for the third time that the British electorate has voted on the issue of Brexit. The first one was the Brexit referendum, where the margin was 52 percent in favour and 48 percent against. A closer scrutiny of the voting pattern showed there was a generational question. While the overwhelming majority of the “grey voters” (meaning aged over 55) voted for divorce with Europe, the majority of “green voters” (under 25) opted to remain in the European Union. The unusual protest on December 13 outside Downing Street perhaps explains how those young voters feel about their future being put into uncertainty by the grey voters.
In the second election, in which Theresa May lost her majority and clung onto power with the support of the Irish Unionists, every contesting party promised to carry on the verdict of the referendum as smoothly as possible. But May’s weak mandate and bickering within the party made it impossible to find any smooth exit. It was Johnson and a few others who opposed her and quit their ministerial jobs. Had Johnson agreed to endorse May’s deal then, Britain would have left the EU as early as last March or at least in May. But Johnson and the other extreme Brexiteers had other plans. His ambition was to get the top job in the country. And, following a successful coup within the party against May, Johnson rose to the high office, promising a new deal and exit within October. His promise was to die in a ditch rather than extending the union beyond October. He did neither. Instead, he picked a fight against parliament by misleading the Queen in suspending its sittings, not allowing closer scrutiny despite his renegotiated deal being passed and chose to call an election.
The difference between Brexit at any cost and its opponents has shifted by just a mere four percent. But those opponents were divided in three groups—revoking the referendum result, calling a second referendum and renegotiate a deal plus a confirmatory referendum. The third option proposed by the Labour Party was too complex, time consuming and its leader’s neutrality in a confirmatory plebiscite was too confusing for the proponents of the other two options. This division definitely hurt Labour the hardest.
As many experts warned, going to the polls when Johnson wanted it would end in Labour losing because of the momentum Johnson enjoyed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats fell into the trap, as without their support, calling an election would not have been possible. But both these two parties were the least prepared for any election. Labour itself was in turmoil for too long. There were tensions among MPs and grassroots members, Blairites vs trade unionists, pro-Palestinians being labelled as anti-Semite and so on. This election was a re-enactment of 2017—where instead of the Tories becoming the target of removal from office, it was all about stopping “Too-Radical” Corbyn.
There was an unnatural alliance between rightists, populists, billionaires, media barons and pseudo-liberals against Corbyn. It explains why so many pundits in unison are saying that Labour would have done better if they had ditched their leader with someone more centrist. The UK has never seen such one-sided media coverage, as well as disinformation campaigns on social media. A good number of experts suggests that Johnson’s success, after a decade of unpopular austerity policies pursued by his party, shows that the blame for Labour’s loss squarely falls on Marxist Corbyn. However, electoral history over the last three decades show Britain is largely a Conservative country and the only leader who succeeded in bringing Labour to power was Tony Blair, who had to renege on a number of core values of the party and renamed his right-leaning centrist position as New Labour. Neither Gordon Brown, nor Ed Miliband could bring that success. Rather, Corbyn in 2017 recouped more than 3 million votes out of the 5 million lost due to the legacy of Blair’s highly unpopular Iraq war.
This election outcome is now set to bring an end to the most radical left-wing leadership in the western world. Similarly, Johnson’s rise, having lots of similarities with US President Trump’s, stokes memories of the Thatcher-Reagan duo. President Trump called Johnson’s victory a harbinger of his re-election. Johnson, with his admiration for Trump, has been emphasising on a trade deal with the US for quite some time. Due to uncertainties in its relationship with Europe in a post-Brexit world, a quicker alignment with the US is very much likely for the UK. Whether that will result in a revival of Neo-Conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic is a big question.
Johnson’s victory will make the divorce easier though, due to his comfortable majority. It will require quite a complex and lengthy negotiation. Until those are concluded, Britain will have to abide by European rules and it may force him to seek another extension or exit without a deal. It will be painful and costly for businesses and the economy.
Johnson’s other challenge is the future of the UK’s own unity. The Scottish Leader Nicola Sturgeon, following her party’s spectacular electoral success of capturing over 80 percent of Scottish seats, has already issued her challenge by saying she will publish her plan for an independence referendum within a week. Scotland in the 2016 referendum voted to remain in the EU and so Brexit is bound to alienate it further. A similar problem is brewing, up in Northern Ireland, which also voted against Brexit. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have gained Johnson’s pre-election ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, who prefer to stay as part of the UK. Johnson’s new deal has annoyed them as it imposes a virtual border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And the nationalists, due to their preference to remain in the EU, have indicated that they too might call for a referendum on unity with the Irish Republic. Johnson’s victory might have brought certainty on the question Brexit, however, at the same time, it has raised the prospect of the disintegration of the Kingdom.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.