LONDON – Back to normal? Hardly.
Britain held its fourth national vote in less than five years Thursday – if 2016’s referendum on EU membership is included – and incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson stormed to victory in a contest that was notionally about one thing: Brexit.
Yet it was also about a potential realignment of Britain’s political identity.
Johnson’s Conservative Party secured 364 of 650 parliamentary seats in a vote that drew comparisons, in terms of its gravity, to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.
In the end, the result drew an additional dotted line to the Iron Lady. It marked the Conservative Party’s best result since Thatcher’s third election win in 1987.
Thatcher, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s political soulmate, launched Britain on a path toward economic reform and aggressive privatization of its major industries from which it has never looked back – or recovered, depending on your politics.
Johnson won with a simple message. He vowed to “get Brexit done.”
And he should be able to do that now.
His main challenger, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, framed the vote as an opportunity to save Britain’s universally cherished state-funded National Health Service (NHS) from Brexit-precipitated ruin; from the Thatcherites, like Johnson essentially, waiting in the wings to usher in a smaller, more market-friendly government. Corbyn, too, promised to sever ties with Britain’s largest and most profitable trading partner.
Only later. On better terms.
The Labour leader is an old-school, left-wing politician whose stewardship of Britain’s center-left party has been wracked by claims of anti-semitism. From the start, Corbyn’s strategy was a fudge. He has never been particularly fond of the EU because he believes its main purpose is to grease the wheels of capitalism. His exit, too, will be a fudge. He said Friday he would resign, eventually, but not before his party undertakes a “period of reflection.” He has proven, over and over, to have ears of political tin.
Above all, Johnson has succeeded in securing an invigorated mandate to lead Britain.
His long-suffering EU withdrawal deal is expected to be quickly ratified by Parliament.
The nation will now likely leave the EU on Jan. 31 after three years of tortuous and seemingly endless delays, bickering, reversals, resignations and confusion.
Johnson achieved what his two predecessors as prime minster, Theresa May and David Cameron, couldn’t: He’s killed for good the idea of a second referendum on Brexit, a do-over vote. At least in the medium-term. There’s always a chance that a subsequent British government could try to “Breturn.” It’s never been done. But neither has Brexit.
Still, to his critics, and there are many – approximately half the country that desperately wants to remain in the EU – Johnson will be guilty of effectively performing a quote from his hero Winston Churchill, the statesmen who led Britain to victory in World War II: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
While Britain is now due to depart the EU next year, it remains exceptionally difficult to find a mainstream economist or political scientist who believes it will be better off for doing so, in terms of wealth creation, jobs, national security, trade, workers rights and more. Brexit is a feeling. Many people in Britain like that feeling.
Financial markets and the British pound currency responded positively to Johnson’s convincing victory, and his post-election promises Friday to work “night and day” to repay the trust of voters of all political stripes, but that’s largely because they feared a Corbyn government bent on undoing decades of Thatcherism, as well as the prospect of a committed humanitarian and socialist in the same room as President Donald Trump.
Like everyone else, investors don’t really know what the impact of Brexit will be, but a Corbyn-Trump relationship seemed a stretch, if not a diplomatic minefield.
“I can’t imagine them having a civil conversation,” said Glyn Morgan, a professor of European affairs at Syracuse University. “Their world views are so diametrically opposed. I doubt Trump has even ever met anyone like Corbyn.”
Ian Bremmer, an American political scientist who specializes in foreign policy, tweeted after the result: “Corbyn makes (left-wing U.S. Democratic presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders look like (former center-right British leader) Tony Blair. There are no lessons from UK election for progressives running for President in the US.”
As for Johnson-Trump, it’s same old, same old. The “special relationship,” forged over two World Wars and a recent NATO meeting in which Johnson denied mocking Trump alongside other world leaders at a reception in Buckingham Palace, stays in tact.
“Congratulations to Boris Johnson on his great WIN!,” Trump tweeted early Friday.
Yet, as Richard Caplan, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, noted, “the one thing we can say about Brexit is that everything about it is unforeseen.”
In fact, one of Brexit’s foreseeable, self-evident truths is that it never ends.
There’s always a next step, often a cliff-hanger, that threatens to set back or unravel the entire enterprise. That’s true now, too. Johnson may have silenced many of his naysayers by winning a vote in which he stood to lose his job as well as Brexit.
But Brexit is nothing if not a process and this process only gets going in earnest next year, when Britain and the EU will start negotiating on its substantive points. They will be deciding on how to split the spoils of more than four decades of economic and practical collaboration that touches on everything from fishing rights to commercial airspace.
Trump is watching closely.
“Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U. Celebrate Boris!” he added in his Friday tweet.
Someone else who is watching closely is Nigel Farage, a close confidante of Trump, who is often described as Brexit’s “architect” for his role in campaigning for Britain’s EU withdrawal long before it seemed politically feasible or fashionable.
“If the withdrawal agreement (Johnson’s EU Brexit deal) is passed by Parliament in its current form, then I believe that is not Brexit and will ultimately lead to more crises and perhaps years more of agonizing negotiations,” Farage said in an interview.
Farage, who vowed to keeping fighting for a “real Brexit,” believes that Johnson’s EU divorce deal, which keeps Britain aligned with EU rules until it has signed a trade deal with the bloc, risks keeping the nation tethered to the EU indefinitely, on poor terms.
However, Farage noted that “a Brexit” is better than “no Brexit.”
Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, in England, characterized Britain’s election as one of the “strangest in the post-WWII period” and one that represents a potential “major shift” for Britain.
“We haven’t really rehearsed what the country looks like after Britain leaves the EU. It’s been an election about the future, that is not about the future,” he said.
But he said that Johnson’s victory represents a likely “shift” for Britain.
And that “shift” has a possible American tinge to it.
Not just because Johnson was born in New York and only recently gave up his U.S. passport, or because he shares with Trump a fondness for populist rhetoric and a predilection for playing fast and loose with the truth, but because Britain outside the EU potentially becomes far more “mid-Atlantic.” A European country geographically, but at the political and psychological level increasingly similar to the U.S., with its lower levels of regulation and less burdensome – the argument goes – tax levels.
Throughout the campaign, Johnson repeatedly denied allegations from Corbyn that after Brexit, and as part of a new trade deal with Trump, the NHS would be “up for sale” – aspects of it unscrupulously outsourced to U.S. technology and Big Pharma firms intent on making a buck in market they have long been died access to. Or to put it another way, a continuation but also escalation of what Thatcher started all those years ago.
Presumably, one of them isn’t telling the truth.