The difficult scenario in post-election Britain

British Pri­me Minis­ter Boris Johnson has won a decisive majo­rity, on the back of a big swing from Labour to the Conservatives in Leave-voting Britain. Out of 650 seats, The Conservative Party won 365 seats, a gain of 47 seats from the past. Compared to this, the Labor Party led by Corbin ended up with 203 seats (including four Bangladeshi-origin women candidates-Tulip Siddiq, Rushanara Ali, Rupa Haq and Apsana Begum)- a loss of 59 since the last election. This proved to be the biggest Tory majority since 1987.

Analysts have also pointed out that, at 45%, the Tory party's share of the vote is set to be at its highest since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Labour, in contrast, found itself with little more than 200 seats, even fewer than the Party won in its previous worst post-war result in 1983. Labour dramatically lost many a seat in the North of England and the Midlands - places such as Ashfield, Bishop Auckland, and Workington - that had never previously elected a Conservative MP in a general election.

However, the swing in the Tories' favor varied dramatically across the country. In those seats where more than 60% of voters backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, the increase in Conservative support on average was 6%. However, in those seats where more than 55% voted Remain, the party's vote actually fell by three points. In contrast, Labor's vote fell on average by as much as 11 points in the most pro-Leave areas. Its vote however fell by only five points in the most pro-Remain ones.

Support for the Conservatives rose by four points in the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire - the regions of England that voted most heavily in favour of Leave. In contrast, the Party's vote fell back by a point in London and the South East.

In Scotland, the improvement in for the SNP was reiterated through the vote for the Conservatives falling by as much as four points. Consequently, the SNP ended up gaining 13 more seats in the Parliament. This gain in numbers to 48 has persuaded the SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon to insist that now; once again, there is no reason why she should not seek a second referendum on Scottish independence- something the Prime Minster has already told her he remains opposed to. Such a move might open up the Pandora’s Box once again.

This unexpected trend of events has led some analysts to suggest that this latest British election had been greatly influenced through thousands of targeted advertisements from all sorts of organizations who had reached out to voters through the social media. Rory Cellan-Jones has in this context remarked about the use of Facebook and some other social media platforms. Different political parties apparently used advertisements to create more visibility on issues, setting their version of the agenda and bringing up a particular topic more into the on-going conversation. Interestingly however, it has been alleged that the Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the big losers in this election, outspent the victorious Conservatives by quite a margin in this regard. Research organization “Who Targets Me” has also mentioned that the election also saw lots of obscure non-party groups, many formed just before the campaign, buying adverts on Facebook. They have also indicated that adverts from seven non-party organisations had been seen more than ads from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Those ads were from three groups encouraging those wanting to remain in the European Union to vote tactically, and four other groups campaigned against Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. This new development has led Sam Jeffers of this organization to express his anxiety and the need to have more transparency behind the online political ad mechanism with regard to releasing of more information not only about political advertising, but also about those who are using it. This format is now being seen as important with regard to the action that is eventually taken by undecided voters.

The electorate, as well as most of the European Union countries, the USA, Canada, Japan and China is now speculating about who will be Labour's next leader.  Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will not lead Labour into the next election, after the party suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Current shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has also ruled himself out of the contest. Within this matrix of uncertainty there are many who are saying that they want the Party to pick a female leader.

Jeremy Corbyn has said that it is up to the National Executive Committee (NEC) - Labour's governing body - to decide when he goes as leader. He has said that he expects a new leader to be selected early in the New Year. Interestingly, political Party’s rulebook says that when both the Leader and Deputy Leader are "permanently unavailable", the NEC can call for a postal ballot. It may be recalled that Deputy Leader Tom Watson stood down on 12 December. The NEC may want to have a new leader in place before local elections in England, scheduled for 7 May next year. In 2015, the process of selecting a new Leader took more than four months. Ed Miliband resigned on 8 May of that year and Jeremy Corbyn was announced as the winner on 12 September of that year. Such a scenario might create some delay again this time.

There are only a few days left before Christmas but Johnson, as expected, has been very busy. He has been in touch with the new Conservative MPs (many of whom have been elected from constituencies traditionally held by Labour MPs), sorted out a mini Cabinet shuffle (to fill posts made vacant by those who stood down ahead of the general election, including that of  the Culture and Welsh Secretary) and also initiated steps required to have a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before Christmas. In this context the government has decided to add a new clause to the Brexit bill to rule out any extension to the transition period beyond the end of next year. The PM has informed the MPs that this format would put an end to three years of "deadlock and delay".  With the large majority, the Bill is expected to pass through Parliament in time to meet his promise for the UK to leave the EU on 31 January, 2020.

The new roller-coaster ride has started.

The Queen's speech has set out the government's upcoming legislative programme linked to pledges made during the election campaign - most notably a guarantee on NHS funding. In addition, Mr Johnson will immediately have to start negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU and have it ratified before the end of the post-Brexit transition period that ends on 31 December 2020.

Measures will also have to be taken to get the Northern Ireland government at Stormont up and running again. This will assume additional significance because within the politics of Northern Ireland many unionists see Johnson's Brexit deal as a betrayal and believe it cuts off the Province from the rest of the United Kingdom by effectively drawing a border down the middle of the Irish Sea.There are also fears that Brexit will revive the buried ghosts of the past — the decades of sectarian violence between Republicans and Loyalists. There is also speculation that this latest Tory victory will reduce ties to the mainland among younger, more pro-European unionist voters. It may be mentioned here that south of the border Ireland will remain in the European Union.

Such a scenario in the context of Scotland and in Northern Ireland is now raising concern as to whether Johnson will be able to keep the Union together. 

The other side of the coin has however pointed out that with his large majority Johnson will be able to all but ignore the political forces at play there now. Strategists within the European Union have been carefully considering different aspects now that Johnson has won a remarkable victory. They are worried about certain factors– namely, concerning the UK’s transition and future relationship with the EU. The transition period, which effectively preserves the status quo aside from the fact that the UK will no longer be represented in the EU’s institutions or have voting rights, will begin once the UK leaves the EU and is due to last until December 2020. Its purpose is to provide both sides the time to negotiate their future relationship. According to the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU and UK “may, before 1 July 2020, adopt a single decision extending the transition period for up to 1 or 2 years.”

At this point of time, according to Larissa Brunner there is little hope that a trade agreement between the EU and UK can be reached and ratified between February and December 2020, so an extension will probably be necessary if the UK is not to fall off the cliff edge and end the transition period with no agreement about the future relationship in place. The timing of a request could be tricky. While the EU will need the UK to decide on an extension quickly, Johnson might prefer to delay it, to avoid having to admit shortly after winning the Premiership on a promise to ‘get Brexit done’ that the UK would actually need to continue to abide by EU rules for longer and pay more into the Union’s budget than planned.

This assumes importance because the planned end of transition will coincide with the end of the Union’s current budgetary period (2014-20). If the transition period is extended, the UK will have to continue contributing to and participating in EU programmes. This would need to be taken into account in the planning of the upcoming 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which the EU hopes to finalise in the first half of 2020. An extension request at the end of June could therefore leave the EU scrambling to adjust its plans, so it is in Brussels’ interest to prepare for this scenario. The EU will also need to prepare for the trade negotiations and their possible outcomes. The UK is now likely to be a difficult negotiating partner.

Under the new Conservative government, there will also be the likely scenario of a ‘Canada plus’-style free trade agreement that covers goods but only has limited provisions on services. This would be consistent with the UK’s stated redlines but will also come at a high cost for the largely service-based economy.

 In short, a surreal landscape is in front of both the United Kingdom and also the European Union. Both London and Brussels will have to tread the ground in front of them with care.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance