Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a considerable victory in December’s general election after voters backed his pledge to “Get Brexit Done” and take Britain out of the European Union by the end of January. It was the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
As this election was all about Brexit, one can say that with this election, the Brexit dilemma is finally over and long-awaited stability is on the horizon. For many years, Brexit has consumed too much time and energy in the UK and occupied much of the country’s political, social, and economic life.
No Exit (Brexit as the Huis Clos)
Both Boris Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May lacked a parliamentary majority and had failed to obtain approval for withdrawal bills from Parliament. With this election, Johnson has now gained the parliamentary majority, which provides him with enough seats in Parliament to pass his Brexit deal with the European Union without negotiating with other parties. The victory gives him the full mandate to deliver Brexit. Once Parliament has ratified the withdrawal agreement, the European Parliament will give its consent in January, before the UK’s departure date on Jan. 31.
Philip Stephens of the Financial Times laments: “Mr Johnson’s insistence on an end-2020 deadline for negotiations with Brussels means the best Britain will get from the EU is a bare bones deal covering trade in goods. The damage to the economy inflicted by Brexit will thus be at the pessimistic end of expectations. The facts of geopolitics are likewise unaltered.”
Stephens goes on: “…the Pax Americana is ending as power shifts to China and other rising states and the US grows ever more reluctant to assume global leadership. The rules-based international system is fragmenting. Coming decades will more closely resemble the great power competition of 19th-century Europe than the end-of-history liberal order many imagined would persist after the end of the cold war. These are all trends that will leave Britain — a middle-ranking nation with widely dispersed global economic and security interests — more vulnerable than most comparable democracies. The last time the UK claimed a serious global role was during the 1960s when it operated a string of military bases across the Middle East and south-east Asia. After sterling’s devaluation in 1967, Harold Wilson’s government beat an enforced retreat from the last outposts of empire east of Suez. The withdrawal from Singapore and the Gulf marked Britain’s admission it was a European rather than a global power — a shift cemented by joining the European Community. Half a century later, Mr Johnson’s government proposes to turn things on their head. Britain, we are to suppose, is once again a global power… This charade will soon reach beyond absurdity.”
Scotland’s homeland call
Although the December election came as a relief for many people, that uncertainty is now over and Britain can finally leave the European Union, the election has brought new challenges even bigger than Brexit. Nationalist parties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have also achieved victories. As these two nations voted to remain in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, their respective nationalist parties have called for a break away from the UK in order to remain in the European Union. As a result, calls for independence have put the political and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom at stake.
In this election, Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Tories lost almost all their seats there, as the SNP made a strong comeback under Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP captured 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, which immediately intensified the debate over independence. The result provides the party with a mandate to ask for a new Scottish independence referendum. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon after the election reiterated her argument following the election results: “Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the EU. He must accept I have a mandate to offer an alternative future for Scotland.” On the other hand, Johnson said he would refuse the referendum. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how he will resist the pressure from the SNP to call for another independence referendum in Scotland.
Northern Ireland – and the beat goes on
Equally significant is that the Tories’ former coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has lost its majority of seats. Northern Ireland elected more Irish nationalists, who support unification with the Republic of Ireland, than pro-British unionists for the first time since 1921. And as one of the key questions regarding Brexit centers around the future position of Northern Ireland, the issue remains unsolved.
Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU was rejected three times by Parliament, in part because of opposition to the Irish backstop by hard-Brexiters within the party. Subsequently, Johnson’s new deal, which removes the Irish backstop, was rejected by coalition partner DUP on the basis that the deal would create an economic border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.
However, as the DUP’s influence on Brexit has now seeped away, the Tories’ large majority means that the government can now progress with Johnson’s initial deal, which the unionists argued would weaken Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. This could eventually prompt calls for a border poll.
As a result, the question is what Brexit will mean for the relationship between Northern Ireland and London, and whether or not Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or unifies with the Republic of Ireland.
This election clearly offered Johnson a political endorsement to pull the UK out of the EU and move onto negotiations about Britain’s future relationship with the bloc; however, the bigger challenges ahead for Johnson appear to be whether he will be able to keep the union intact and stop any secession from the United Kingdom. There is already a large amount of pressure from the SNP and Sinn Fein, which want to leave the UK and remain part of the EU. It will be interesting to see how Johnson will tackle that challenge and preserve the political and territorial integrity of the kingdom.
While many hailed the Tories’ victory in the election as the end of the Brexit saga, the latter seems to have a long life ahead. It is not only going to affect the UK’s future relationship with the EU but may also represent the end of Britain’s territorial integrity.
Enes Güzel is deputy researcher at TRT World Research Centre, PhD candidate majoring in political science and international relations.
The views expressed in this article belongs to the author alone and does not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.