After an ‘astonishing’ election, the UK still faces challenges

By Lorenzo Cladi

In the UK, a December general election is unusual. As the British people went to the polls on 12 December, it was the sixth time since 1800 that a general election took place in December and the first time since 1923.

Many people in the UK are not very used to thinking about government changes in December. Sipping a hot chocolate after a round Christmas shopping, nicely wrapped in a blanket on a sofa, perhaps in front of a Christmas movie, while it is cold, windy and possibly rainy outside, is a better thing to do, isn’t it? It is. But on this occasion, two-thirds of the UK electorate, around 47 million people, still took the time to walk to the nearest polling station to cast their vote.

The results seem astonishing. The Conservative Party, led by former mayor of London and Manhattan-born Boris Johnson, won a comfortable majority in the House of Commons. This is where 650 members of Parliament (MPs) represent citizens’ interests, propose new laws and scrutinise government policies. The Conservative Party won 365 seats, gaining a majority of 80. This is the biggest win since Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who was superbly interpreted by American actress Meryl Streep in 2011 biographical drama, was re-elected for a third time with a majority of 101 in 1987.

Mr. Johnson celebrated the victory of his party and went through the usual ceremonial in British politics, whereby the soon to be Prime Minister visits Buckingham Palace in London to meet Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. Subsequently, Mr. Johnson was empowered by the monarch to form a government.  

Mr. Johnson secured a victory as the majority of voters appeared to back his promise to “get Brexit done.” Of course, Brexit featured very heavily in the campaign: The UK was set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, but an extension has been granted on two occasions. With the decisive majority that Mr. Johnson has won, there could now be little doubt that the UK will leave the EU as planned at 11 p.m. on 31 January 2020. European leaders frantically waited for the result of the UK election hoping that there would be an end to the uncertainty which has reigned so much in “Brexit Britain” over the past few years.

Lorenzo Cladi

However, Mr. Johnson will still face many challenges. In fact, to formally leave the EU is one thing. Getting ‘Brexit done’ is another. The first could well happen as planned on 31 January 2020. The second will involve negotiating a strategy for the future relationship with the EU.

Mr. Johnson will have a lot of work to do in terms of negotiating a mutually beneficial trade and security relationship with his counterparts in the European Union. He will also have to keep negotiating with the ‘hard line’ members of his party, the so-called European Research Group.

Mr. Johnson’s own personality could also be a challenge. Despite the fact that his government now rests upon a comfortable majority, his own temperament and judgement could still get in the way and prompt him to break the odd election promise if it were in his interests. 

The UK is not only a very important state in Europe. The UK is also a very important state in international politics. It is therefore no wonder that US President Donald Trump used one his tweets to congratulate Johnson “on his great WIN.” President Trump is a firm believer that the UK and the US could strike a massive trade deal after Brexit.

President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson appear to be fans of each other now. The American president seems to have forgiven the former London mayor for past insults as Trump was competing with Hillary Clinton for the race to the White House. The renewed personal bond between Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson could lead to a positive atmosphere in the short term, making agreement on thorny issues such as trade not look as far away as it appears. But the reality is that Mr. Johnson will still have to bridge gaps with his American ally as issues such as access to each other’s markets will require tireless negotiation.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, the centre-left political party in the UK and major rival to the Conservative Party, is about to enter into a period of reflection. It had the worst election result in more than 80 years. Significantly, many former Labour voters in north-east England switched to the Conservative Party in the election.

The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has already made clear that he will not lead the Labour party to another election. Mr. Corbyn maintained an undecisive stance over Brexit. He kept defending his neutral stance in case of a second referendum on Brexit. This did not seem to reassure many people, who would prefer that the UK did not leave the European Union at all. These voters would have preferred a clearer pivot to an unequivocally pro-remain position.

As a result of this election, the major domestic challenge for Mr. Johnson, at least in the short term, is likely to come from the other winner of this election, namely the Scottish National Party (SNP), led by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP won 48 seats in the House of Commons. The SNP strongly opposes Brexit, but it backs Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. In light of the SNP’s electoral success, Mrs. Sturgeon will be another protagonist in British politics for the foreseeable future. She will support a second referendum on Scottish independence, following the first one which took place in 2014. 

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, people in the UK and around the world have been paying more and more attention to developments in British politics. This election delivered a clear result, but it will take more than (another) election to determine what the consequences of Brexit will be. It might help reminding about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, in 1972, was asked about the impact the French revolution, which occurred nearly 200 years before. Zhou Enlai’s cautious response was “Too early to say.”

Lorenzo Cladi is Associate Head of School – Teaching and Learning at University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. Dr. Cladi taught political science at St. Bonaventure University during the 2011-12 academic year.

Lorenzo Cladi lectured about Brexit at Trinity College, Oxford University, in August.


Categories: Jandoli Institute, Politics

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