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Johnson's majority

Well it is truly remarkable. Not so much the result of the election, which is surprising enough.

But, rather, the fact that following the “Brexit election”, one in which traditional party loyalties seem to have been stretched to breaking point by the leave-remain divide, we emerge not knowing what kind of Brexit the prime minister intends to deliver.

In the short term, there is now no doubt that he will be able to “get Brexit done” in the sense of taking the UK out of the EU by the end of January. And no, that does not mean that Brexit will, in fact, be done (on which more in a minute) in a practical sense.

But it may – may – be possible for the government to give the impression that it is in a politically persuasive way.

Departure itself will be a seismic event. Any government worth its salt will be able to trumpet that achievement as fulfilling the will of the British people. Thereafter, to maintain the illusion of completion, the task will be twofold.

To keep the debate over relations with the Europeans as boring and technical as possible, and to launch a number of eye-catching policy initiatives that will give the impression that we have finally moved on.

If all this manages to push Brexit from page 1 to page 6, then mission accomplished, at least in the short term. But of course, another pinch point will be just around the corner, as the deadline for requesting an extension to transition looms at the end of June.

And this really matters. In the event it looks like a deal will not be possible by the end of the year, this is our one chance to avoid a relationship with the EU based solely on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

Yet the Conservatives have promised in their manifesto not to extend the transition.

Which brings us to the weirdest thing of all. We simply do not know what kind of Brexit Boris Johnson wants. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear two distinct narratives.

On the one hand, pro-soft Brexit Tories whisper that the kind of substantial majority the prime minister has will allow him to unleash his inner one-nation Conservative.

Freed from the grasp of the ERG, they say, he will be able to negotiate the soft Brexit he has always secretly wanted, limiting the economic impact of Brexit, and allowing him to achieve it with minimal pain.

On the other, those very ERGers see Johnson as their ticket to the loose relationship with the EU they hanker after. The promise not to extend transition, for them, is a guarantee of either a bare bones trade deal or an exit on WTO terms.

The decision the prime minister takes will determine the economic fate of the country in the medium term.

A thin free-trade agreement will have a significant economic impact on the United Kingdom – we estimate somewhere between -1.1% and -2.6% of GDP. For a WTO exit, those numbers are -3.2% and -4.5%.

And of course Johnson is now the head of a political coalition that’s very different to that which propelled David Cameron to power in 2015. Former Labour voters across what we used to call the “red wall” have very different economic priorities to traditional Conservative voters.

And the kinds of Labour seats the Tories have hoovered up have very different economies. For one thing, they tend to be places where a larger proportion of the population than the national average are employed in manufacturing.

The kind of bare bones FTA envisaged by some in the Conservative party would have profound consequences for those jobs. Industry bodies have not been slow to express their concerns.

In mid-October, the aerospace, automotive, chemicals, food and drink and pharmaceutical industries wrote to the government to warn that the kind of relationship with the EU that the government seemed to be contemplating could pose a “serious risk to manufacturing competitiveness”.

Meanwhile, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has argued that a WTO exit would lead to UK car production falling by more than a third.

The stakes, in other words, could hardly be higher. It is conceivable that the government will be able to persuade people that Brexit was “done” in January.

But there will be no hiding from the economic repercussions. And – the flip side of the autonomy that a significant majority brings – those repercussions will be unambiguously owned by the Conservatives.

By Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared on the Guardian website. 


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