U.K. Still Faces Uncertain Future Despite Decisive Election
Photo: LEON NEAL/Getty Images
After several years of political paralysis, the outcome of Thursday’s national election positions the U.K.’s political institutions to take action again, for better or worse. With a landslide victory for his Conservative party, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has succeeded at breaking the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit, which he now has the votes to enact. Yet even with this new mandate, Johnson is presiding over a deeply divided country, which might still be torn apart by the same nationalist impulses that helped him cement his power.
Thursday’s results were the most decisive victory for the Tories since Margaret Thatcher’s 397-seat landslide in 1983. With his party firmly in power, Johnson’s Brexit deal is now more or less locked in — which may leave some Labour MPs wishing they had backed the “softer” version his predecessor Theresa May had negotiated. The current deadline for Brexit is January 31 and Johnson is expected to work quickly to shepherd the withdrawal bill through Parliament so that the U.K. can withdraw from the E.U. ahead of schedule — perhaps before Christmas.
Johnson’s campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done” appears to have resonated strongly with an electorate tired of endlessly relitigating the 2016 referendum, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to equivocate on Brexit and focus on his radical economic agenda fell flat. In line with what the pre-election polls had predicted, the Tories made major gains in traditional Labour strongholds in northern England’s industrial heartland — much in the same way President Donald Trump won in 2016 by knocking down the “blue wall” of Rust Belt states that Democrats had taken for granted.
These working-class constituencies had largely voted Leave in 2016, which is one reason why Corbyn declined to embrace calls from the young, diverse, London-dwelling elements of the Labour base to cancel Brexit. These voters’ combination of left-leaning and pro-Brexit politics put Labour MPs from these areas in a real bind this fall when they had to vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal: Vote yes and give a major political victory to a Tory PM, or vote no and risk being seen as defying your voters’ will and gumming up the works. It’s no wonder so many of them lost their seats on Thursday. Johnson was offering a clear and expeditious path forward on Brexit, while Labour was proposing another year or more of uncertainty, as it renegotiated the deal yet again and put it to another referendum.
Labour’s fortunes were further spoiled by Corbyn’s historic levels of unpopularity, with just 21 percent of the public holding a positive opinion of him and 61 percent holding a negative opinion. Corbyn’s dismal favorability makes even the divisive and controversial Johnson look good with his 35/47 ratings. The Labour leader’s future was very much in doubt Thursday night as Labour politicians, including some of the MPs about to lose their seats, lined up to blame him for the party’s worst defeat in almost 40 years. His hardcore supporters will insist that the fault lies with literally anyone or anything other than Dear Leader, but the only real question is whether voters were most turned off by Corbyn’s expensive socialist agenda, his milquetoast position on Brexit, his halfhearted response to rising antisemitism in his party, or merely his total lack of charisma. Whatever the case, the Party will move forward without him: Corbyn announced early Friday morning that he would stay on for a “process of reflection,” but would not lead Labour into the next election.
To be fair, Corbyn’s toxicity isn’t the only reason Labour fared so poorly on Thursday. Johnson’s divide-and-conquer strategy benefited greatly from the fact that his opposition was already hopelessly divided. Perhaps no Labour leader could have corralled both the working-class Leavers and the urbane, socialist Remainers of the party’s coalition. The Liberal Democrats, which ran on an explicit platform of revoking Brexit, may have drawn some staunchly anti-Brexit voters away from Labour, but failed to make much of a splash. The Lib Dems were projected in the exit poll to take just 13 seats — about as many as it won in 2017. In Scotland, the anti-Brexit vote appears to have mainly benefited the Scottish National Party, whose performance was the other big story of the night.
The exit poll projected that the SNP would win 55 out of 59 Scottish seats in Parliament, nearly matching its best-ever outcome of 56 in the 2015 polls. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, like Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, led her party into this election on an unabashedly anti-Brexit platform. Unlike the Lib Dems, however, the SNP offered voters the additional lure of another referendum on Scottish independence next year. (Indeed, Sturgeon is expected to declare that her party has won a new mandate for a second independence vote.) Scotland voted against independence in 2014 by a ten-point margin, or by around 400,000 votes. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in 2016, however, and the prospect of Scotland re-joining the E.U. as an independent country could tip the scale in favor of a Scotch Egg-sit next year.
While Scottish nationalism looks to be on the rise, it’s less clear what has become of the English nationalism that precipitated Brexit in the first place. Nigel Farage, the far-right racist rabble-rouser who used to lead the U.K. Independence Party, formed a new, single-issue Brexit Party this past January to stand in the European Parliament elections this spring and in Thursday’s national election, advocating a hard Brexit with no special trade relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. While the Brexit Party took 25 seats in the European Parliament in May, it appears to have won no seats in the U.K. Parliament Thursday.
Yet winning seats may not have been Farage’s aim. In order to avoid splitting the Leave vote and helping Labour win Conservative seats, the Brexit Party had agreed not to contest the 317 seats the Tories had won in 2017. Thursday night, Farage claimed that his party’s decision not to run in those constituencies was the only reason the exit poll was projecting a Tory landslide instead of a hung parliament. He also boasted: “I killed the Liberal Democrats and I hurt the Labour Party.” Still, with no presence in Parliament, Farage will have no leverage to influence the Brexit deal and the year or more of trade negotiations that will follow its ratification.
One way to interpret this outcome is that Johnson successfully co-opted and neutralized the British far-right, whom he will gladly betray as soon as he has a secure foothold in power and Brexit is in the rearview mirror. Another interpretation — surely the one Farage believes — is that Johnson is beholden for his victory to the hardline Brexiteers, who ransomed those 317 Tory seats to prevent a second Brexit referendum and ensure the withdrawal went through with no further delay. Don’t forget that neither David Cameron nor Theresa May, nor most Conservative politicians, had actually wanted or expected Brexit to pass. Having Johnson in power and securing a relatively hard Brexit deal under his leadership is, on its face, much more a victory than a defeat for the populist right. If Johnson ultimately disappoints the hard Brexit camp, Farage and his followers may well resurface and start making trouble for him again.
While Johnson may claim victory in this election and in the debate over Brexit, his legacy and his political future will depend on how he governs over the coming years. With the threat of another Scottish independence vote (and an uncertain future for Northern Ireland), he might end up being the last prime minister of the U.K. as we know it today. British — or rather, English — politicians a generation from now could find themselves in a downsized House of Commons, debating whether breaking up with the European Union was worth breaking up their own union as well. To quote the prime minister’s favorite predecessor: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”