Britain Elects the Lesser of Two Evils

14.12.19 Publication:

The British public have chosen the lesser of the two evils that were offered to them in the
country’s first December general election since 1923. The result does not mean that either
Boris Johnson or Brexit is popular, but the large Parliamentary majority and commanding
share of the vote that the Conservatives have won definitely does mean that he can act
decisively, both on Brexit and on the domestic policies that most voters think are more
important: jobs, health, crime and education.

The Conservatives’ 78-seat majority represents the party’s best result since Margaret
Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987. Even more notable, however, in a winner takes all
electoral system that has often delivered Parliamentary majorities to governments with low
vote shares, is the fact that Johnson won 44% of the vote, which is the highest any
government has achieved since 1979, Thatcher’s first victory.

Politically, the main lesson of Britain’s election is that credibility is a vital ingredient
of any campaign. Johnson’s main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, simply did not
have it. Labour offered individual policy proposals that seemed popular, but its leader was a
strange mixture of weak and extremist. And the small centrist party, the Liberal Democrats,
failed to build any credibility at all. Its young new female leader, Jo Swinson, even lost her
own Parliamentary seat to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Most likely, Prime Minister Johnson’s strong mandate does now mean that he will
feel free to align Britain quite closely to the European Union, especially in foreign and
defence policies. This will make life easier for the European Commission and EU
governments. No faction in his party now holds leverage over him, whether the anti-EU
fundamentalists such as Jacob Rees-Mogg or the few remaining moderate Tories, or indeed
the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party whose votes his predecessor, Theresa May,
depended on.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that he will now govern as a centrist. A
man with unfixed views about government but a strong lust for power, it will not take long
for Johnson to start thinking about how to make sure he can win the next general election in
four or five years’ time, so as to turn himself into a two-term prime minister.

His answer will surely be Trumpian: to build popularity beyond simply being the
lesser of two evils, he will want to do everything possible to ensure that the British economy
enjoys strong growth both in GDP and in living standards. His main tools to achieve that are
likely to be increases in public investment in infrastructure, including the National Health
Service, and targeted deregulation with the aim of boosting business investment in some
key sectors.

The more that he pushes deregulation, which is likely in such sectors as
pharmaceuticals, chemicals and bio-science, the harder it will be to achieve the rapid free
trade agreement with the EU that he has promised. The deadline to achieve that agreement
is December 31 st 2020, which is when the UK’s transition period is due to end and when it is
due to leave the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of European law. But
with his strong majority he will not find it hard to negotiate an extension of that transition
period, if one seems to be necessary.

Shocked by the scale of their defeats, both the Labour Party and the Liberal
Democrats will now begin a deep rethink about what their parties stand for and what sort of
new leaders they should elect. The Liberal Democrats have few MPs, just 11, so they will
face a limited choice. Labour however with 203 MPs have a wider choice but one that may
prove no less difficult: whether to retain the quite far-left stance bequeathed by Corbyn on
issues such as renationalisation of railways and utilities, or to move somewhat closer to the
political centre.

That battle inside the left will go on largely behind the scenes, unnoticed and not
cared about by the public. By contrast there will now be a highly public battle between
Johnson and the Scottish Nationalist Party about whether there should soon be a second
referendum in Scotland about independence from the United Kingdom.

The last such referendum, in 2014, chose decisively to stay in the UK. But in this
election the Scottish Nationalists took 48 of the 59 Scottish seats, with 45% of the vote, a
big improvement on the 2017 election, and Brexit provides a new justification given that
Scots are quite strongly pro-EU. Only the Westminster Parliament has the power to call a
referendum, so Johnson will be able to block it. That means, however, that public
demonstrations and pressure will grow, with Scotland emulating Spain’s Catalonia.

Neither the battle over Scottish independence nor anxiety over the future status of
Northern Ireland are likely to cause Johnson to lose much sleep over the Christmas holidays
however. A man rated as untrustworthy in polls has had his political strategy thoroughly
vindicated by the voters.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay