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A thumping victory for Boris — but now what?

20 December 2019

Boris Johnson is in a commanding position — but has many difficult issues to navigate, says Mark D’Arcy


Boris Johnson is greeted by staff last Friday as he returns to Downing Street after the Conservatives won the General Election

Boris Johnson is greeted by staff last Friday as he returns to Downing Street after the Conservatives won the General Election

AFTER every General Election, the Speaker of the House of Commons ceremonially requests the Queen to reaffirm the traditional privileges of the Commons: freedom of speech, access to the monarch, and “favourable construction”. This last is the request that Her Majesty should regard whatever the Commons does in the best possible light. Maybe, in future, the request should be made on behalf of MPs to the public at large.

It has been a year in which the word “prorogation” has appeared in the news reports, in which the Supreme Court overturned an attempt to suspend Parliament (News, 27 September), and in which a government has simply been unable to govern, its attempts to deliver its version of Brexit frustrated by MPs at every turn.

But now the election and the thumping victory won by Boris Johnson promise to end the deadlock and Byzantine manoeuvrings. “Remain” has been decisively defeated. And the majority returned last Friday is large enough to insulate the Prime Minister from factions and rebel cabals.

This means that the Government should now be able to deliver its Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, and take the UK out by the deadline of 31 January. And that may take much of the sting out of the venomous national debate on Brexit — but only some.

To be sure, the agreement extricates the UK from the political structures of the European Union, but it ushers in a transitional period, lasting until the end of 2020, during which nothing much will seem to change: the UK will remain in the single market and the European Economic Area while a longer-term relationship is thrashed out. And the Government is now legislating to make it illegal to seek an extension to that transitional period.

BEYOND that lies a much bigger strategic choice between remaining closely tied to the EU or seeking a more flexible future trading relationship with the world, unencumbered by EU regulation. In other words, the same old unresolved dilemma that underlay the whole Brexit debate. Britain may have passed through the pearly gates of Brexit, but it might not seem particularly heavenly to an electorate that hoped that it had heard the last of it.

With a decisive majority of MPs behind the Government — Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister to enjoy a comfortable majority in the Commons since Tony Blair in 2005 — power will shift back from Parliament to Downing Street. He has the freedom of action which Theresa May had hoped to win when she called the 2017 election, and he will move fast to exploit the moment. But it is far from total freedom: to govern is to choose, and each choice pleases some but alienates others.

Neither die-hard Remainers nor the über-Brexiteer European Research Group will be able to jerk Mr Johnson’s chain as they did Mrs May’s. The PM, now in a commanding position inside his party, will design and build his own Brexit, and the consequences of those choices will start to accumulate — although the Government says that it remains committed to building on existing standards, with measures that protect the low-paid.

Already, the PM has revised his Withdrawal Agreement to remove concessions offered in the previous parliament over scrutiny of future trade deals and guarantees on workers’ rights — although the Government says that it remains committed to building on existing standards, with measures that protect the low-paid.

A freewheeling, free-trading “Singapore on Thames” Brexit might delight some of his supporters while, perhaps, alienating many of the ex-Labour voters who delivered his election victory. They may not fancy diluted employment rights and more economic competition from Far Eastern economies. A close alignment with the EU, on the other hand, risks accusations of betrayal and BRINO (Brexit in name only), where Britain would be reduced to a rule-taking vassal status, bound by EU regulations but voiceless in their making, while hamstrung by those regulations when it comes to striking new trade deals elsewhere.

And then there is immigration. So far, the Government has been able to fend off questions about how a new system outside the EU free-movement regulations would work, with vague talk of an “Australian-style point-based system.” This is a sound-bite, not an answer. There are real choices to be made about allowing in agricultural workers to pick crops and about attracting in skilled workers, and, again, each choice creates opponents as well as supporters.

In the back of the prime-ministerial mind must be the thought that, while Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party were pushed to the sidelines in this election, he has a proven ability to pull his electoral coalition back together again if supplied with a suitable cause to fight for.

Finding a sweet-spot compromise might involve making some vocal pro-Brexit interest groups very unhappy. Ask the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, who discovered that the price of reaching Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal was that they retain access to the single market, with customs checks between them and Great Britain.

The Conservatives no longer need the DUP to provide them with a majority, but the implications of that compromise for the rest of the UK are dangerous for the Government. If Northern Ireland can be given a special status and single-market access, within the UK, why not pro-Remain Scotland? It is a question that the SNP will certainly ask. And if that special status is not on offer, should Scotland leave the UK to remain in the EU?

Those questions set off a kind of devolutionary domino effect. If there is going to be a special deal for Scotland, why not one for Wales? And if the Government splashes the cash to soothe separatist pressures in the nations of the UK, will voters in the English regions start to feel they are being ignored? In 2015, and again in 2019, the Conservatives raised the spectre of a Labour government in the pocket of greedy nationalists; they can hardly afford to do what they warned against Labour’s doing, especially since the new breed of metro mayors created in the Coalition years provide ready-made leaders, capable of mobilising grievances over where the money is going.

The SNP is now the Government’s most dangerous foe: it is even more dominant in Scotland than the Tories are in England, and it is focused on a simple goal. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has already signalled that she will demand the right to hold a second independence referendum. Either she gets what she wants, or she has a grievance that can be weaponised for next elections to the Scottish Parliament, in 2021. And, if the SNP triumphs again, it may push ahead with a referendum in the teeth of London’s opposition.

PAThe leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, on the campaign trail in Edinburgh last week. The SNP is now the Government’s most dangerous foe

It is, at least, a challenge that Mr Johnson can see coming. So look out for an emerging strategy to keep the UK united, without creating as much resentment south of the border as it defuses north of it.

THE Johnson government, meanwhile, looks set to bin any number of old orthodoxies. Out goes austerity — not because the books are now balanced, but because the public has had enough of it. The stringent approach of Chancellors Osborne and Hammond will be replaced by a greater willingness to spend on the NHS, on public services, and on the armed forces and the regions — and, of course, on tax cuts. Industrial strategy, once derided as an outmoded 1960s fetish, is back in fashion, not least because government activism will be needed as industry adjusts to life after the EU.

Part of that looks likely to be a spending spree on infrastructure, particularly in the Conservatives’ newly won territory in the north of England. His terms as London Mayor suggest that Mr Johnson is attracted to big game-changing infrastructure projects (although his garden bridge and island airport never left the drawing board). As Prime Minister, Mr Johnson will be keen to commission a few grand projects.

But, again, even with a more relaxed approach to debt, there will always be limits to what can be paid for, and choices to be made, each of which will create losers as well as winners. In particular, there is a political constraint: many Conservatives did not come into politics to be social democrats in blue rosettes. They are ideologically committed to small government, low borrowing, and minimal state intervention, and they will not be comfortable with a new brand of big-state paternalistic Conservatism intervening here, there, and everywhere. While Mr Johnson basks in the aura of victory, this might not matter much, but the undercurrent will be there.

There will also be tests of the new Commons’ social attitudes. The next round of Private Members Bills might well produce an assisted dying Bill, and maybe one on transgender rights, or on legalising hunting, or the decriminalisation of soft drugs. The result could be a huge clash of values, and ministers might not be able to stay neutral.

AFTER three years dominated by Brexit, during which the Government has not been able to get much significant legislation through, there are plenty of non-Brexit issues screaming for attention, too.

Top of the list is adult social care. Mr Johnson did not make Mrs May’s error and specify a solution that would be bound to attract critics and ugly nicknames to rank with the 2017 “Dementia Tax”. Instead, he promised an attempt to win cross-party agreement for a long-term solution. Any realistic answer to the social-care crisis will demand gargantuan amounts of cash and require unpopular taxes, probably on inherited property, but the bruised opposition parties might be unwilling to dip their hands in the blood and share the blame with the Tories. Similarly, a serious response to climate change will require some tough decisions.

At least for the next few years, the opposition (other than the SNP) will be too absorbed in their own internal battles and existential crises to provide much of a counterweight to the Government. Serious politics, in the sense of debating the direction of public policy, is mostly going to happen inside the Conservative Party. Their rivals are vanquished and sidelined.

But an electoral coalition that stretches from Woking to Wakefield, from Bishop Auckland to Bournemouth, is an unwieldy thing, and it will take an extended display of political virtuosity for ministers to please all of its elements all, or even most, of the time. The economic interests and the cultural values are just too different.

Brexit is going to bring a great deal of change at a very rapid pace, and a grumpy electorate might not like much of it. That is why MPs in general, and the Government in particular, will need that “favourable construction” — or, at least, the benefit of the doubt — from weary voters.

Mark D’Arcy is the Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.

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