Does Boris Johnson's victory mean a softer Brexit?
In the wake of Thursday's emphatic Tory election triumph in the U.K., one thing about Brexit is certain: Three and a half years after voting to do so, and two general elections later, the country will now definitely leave the EU.
Even before the election campaign began, Conservative Campaign Headquarters had distilled their message down to three words: "Get Brexit done." It was the cornerstone of their campaign. It promised to move decisively past all the deadlock and the bickering, and it looks now to have been devastatingly effective: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been handed a decisive mandate to move forward into a brave new world of clarity — a "huge great stonking mandate," as he put it. And yet, just at the point where everything should be coming into focus on the issue of Brexit, nobody knows what it will actually look like. Perhaps, therefore, it is time to take a guess.
Brexit will now happen almost certainly under the terms of Johnson's withdrawal agreement. He agreed it with the EU some months ago, and now that he commands a massive majority in Parliament, it should soon become law. The problem is that the withdrawal agreement is a short-term document concerned with who gets what, and has little bearing on the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU.
What now stands ahead for the country are the much more significant negotiations to decide what this future will look like, and it will be Johnson and the EU — not the people who voted for Brexit, with their varied, often mutually incompatible preferences — that decide what this relationship will be.
Johnson faces a basic choice between a "hard" Brexit — whereby the U.K. abruptly severs ties with the world's second largest economy, sitting just 20 miles off its coast — or a "soft" Brexit — where many of the links that come with being a member of the EU are maintained. Before Thursday's election, when he led a minority government, Johnson needed every vote to stand any hope of passing anything Brexit-related, and as such had to try to please, or at least not overly displease, both "soft" and "hard" Brexiters. His predecessor impaled herself trying to do just that.
Now, however, his hands are untied. Prime ministers with big majorities can, in essence, do what they want, particularly straight after a landslide victory, and while no one can be sure which direction he will head, what Johnson wants can perhaps be discerned from his past. Before leading the Leave campaign, he was an ardent pro-European. Even as a Brexiter, he has championed free trade and globalization, in direct confrontation with many of the Leave voters of England's North. We now know they forgave him for these tendencies, or never noticed them in the first place.
Indeed, when the dust settles, the people of the U.K. will realize that they have handed complete executive authority to negotiate the U.K.'s relationship with the EU to a man whose temperament is fundamentally metropolitan, whose economic worldview is basically libertarian, and whose primary political objective is the procurement and retention of power.
As such, he will likely take the course of action that is best for the economy, and he will not be governed by an atavistic distaste of Europeans; he will look to reduce trade barriers, and in order to do so, he will have to accept many of the EU's rules and regulations — exactly what the Leave voters wanted to extricate themselves from. Johnson will probably be at ease with this softest of Brexits because siding with Leave was little more than a calculated route to the top of U.K. politics in the first place, and because it will boost the economy, which will help him retain power.
The substantive Brexit negotiations begin now, and it is for this reason that commentators, analysts, and political rivals have all been quick to point out the banality of the Tory's election-winning maxim. Brexit isn't done, they say, it has only just begun. But in defense of British voters who were seduced by the phrase, there are two meaningful senses in which the pain of Brexit is actually over.
First, if Brexit, to you, has come to mean the unedifying political stalemate in Westminster, then this indeed has ended.
Second, if Brexit has become indistinguishable from the backdrop of febrile national division that has split families and communities in two, this will probably now begin to subside. With the U.K. out of Europe and the Tories with a massive working majority in Parliament, the oppressive scrutiny of the process, the obsessive coverage of the media, and the divisive question of whether the country should be in or out, these are likely to be less intense now. People who want to forget about politics — and that's a large number of people — will be allowed to do so for the next five years. For many, Brexit is done, and this reduction of scrutiny could provide the perfect environment in which to allow Johnson to steer the country towards and ever-"softer" British separation from its European neighbors.
Unlike President Trump, Johnson isn't someone who will try to fight the inexorable gravity that attracts major modern economies with shared economic and political interests — globalization, in other words. When it comes to Brexit, I'd bet that after a few years with Johnson at the helm, it will be as if it never really happened.
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