#Brexit – what will happen post UK general election?

| January 6, 2020

The UK’s election is over; the Conservatives have their largest majority for over thirty years. In the end, it was simple for Johnson, as straightforward as the opinion polls had suggested it would be throughout the campaign. Partly because of the clarity and relentlessness of his messaging (the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ has rasped in the ears of the nation like a form of political tinnitus) and also because of the fatal weaknesses of the Labour opposition, writes Accordance Chairman Nicholas Hallam.

Labour could have chosen to please its remain voting base or its leave voting base; in the end, it committed to neither and was rejected by both. Likewise, any economic policy credibility advantage it might have held over a Conservative Party perceived to be careering towards a catastrophic hard Brexit was squandered by its offering of an inchoate blizzard of random goodies and free stuff (including: a four-day working week; a renegotiated Brexit deal and second referendum; free broadband; no tuition fees; a Green New Deal; nationalisation of major utilities; and national sectoral bargaining; with all consequent tax increases to be borne by the three percent of the UK’s adult population that currently generate fifty percent of revenues, and who are notorious for their global mobility).

Only Tony Blair – despised by Labour’s current leadership – has secured a significant Labour majority since 1966. The consensus is that he did so by severe prioritization; with each commitment he made accompanied by a plausible description of how it might be delivered. This was not the Corbyn method. For Corbynites, the horror of inequality, of perceived oppression, is so overwhelming that the obligation to address it overrides all other considerations, practical and otherwise. There is no discussion to be had about priorities and trade-offs, because the language of compromise is itself an evil. Even now, despite Labour’s worst performance since 1935, Corbyn claims to have ‘won the argument.’

It was simple for Johnson, but will it be easy? Speaking at the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) post-election breakfast, hosted by DLA Piper on the morning after Johnson’s victory, the highly respected Brexit expert Charles Grant suggested that Johnson would govern as a ‘Red Tory’. Red Tory is the title of a 2010 book by Conservative thinker Phillip Blond; lambasted during the Cameron years because of his links to the failed ‘Big Society’ initiative, Blond turns out to have been prescient (or inspirational) in his overall vision for the Conservatives’ future.

For Blond, global finance capitalism has hollowed out communities and economic activities outside the great metropolises. In the UK, the consequence is the absolute pre-eminence of London. The result is an ever-harder struggle to ‘just about manage’ (in Theresa May’s phrase) for millions of increasingly provincialized British people outside of London, who have experienced the steady erosion of their economic and cultural capital. In this view, transnational institutions – like the EU – are part of the problem, while the reclamation of popular sovereignty – through events like Brexit – is part of the solution.

There is some evident continuity between the Red Tory and Corbynite analyses – though perhaps not enough to constitute the ‘winning of an argument’. And it was striking, listening to yesterday’s Queen’s Speech (through which Johnson announced his legislative programme) how far the UK has moved on from the axiomatic economic liberalism of the previous forty years.

The Conservative Party has won the votes of working-class leavers, and now depends on them for power. All the talk is of ‘levelling up’ the country, of spreading prosperity beyond the south-east, with the state as handmaiden of the process. The Conservative Party – still averse to increasing the tax base – is suddenly intensely relaxed about borrowing and investment. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s leading advisor, sees Brexit as an opportunity to make the UK’s governance structures – freed from the sclerotic legalism of the EU – fit to manage the challenges and risks of the world as it is now: from providing universal healthcare to an aging population to confronting the threats of runaway artificial intelligence and autonomous weaponry.

The issue for Johnson (and Cummings), as it was to a far greater extent for Labour, is the question of how this is to be afforded. It is here that the Brexit dilemma bites for Johnson. The more access he demands to the single market after Brexit, the more aligned the UK will have to be to the EU’s regulatory framework. Non-alignment could, for instance, be catastrophic for major industries – like the car manufacturers in England’s new Tory-friendly northern provinces. Yet, like the Labour leavers, the EU wants a level-playing field; it is not interested in enabling a low-tax, low-regulation ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ to become a free-rider on the internal market.

The UK is a huge net exporter of services to the EU – and is an eighty percent service economy – and it is because of this that many (including former Ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers) believe that serious trade-offs and compromises with the EU may be inevitable even for those most resolutely committed to getting Brexit done. Indeed, Rogers believes that freedom of movement itself may come back onto the negotiating table as price for access to the EU for the UK’s service sector: a climbdown that would be toxic with Conservatives’ new anti-globalist constituency.

Nor is EU-UK alignment attractive to the more doctrinaire old time free-marketeers of the Conservative European Research Group: for them, the greater the alignment, the less point there was in Brexit, because alignment makes it difficult to complete other trade deals – particularly the ‘great deal’ with Donald Trump they long for with such touching credulousness.

Johnson is full of surprises. He has amended the EU Withdrawal Bill so that the UK cannot extend the post Brexit standstill transition arrangements beyond December 2020, confounding critics who thought he would break his pledges and put off the moment of truth about these matters. And yet this manoeuvre may also turn out to be a Johnsonian sleight of hand. Consider how Northern Ireland was simply reimagined as a socio-political entity when it wouldn’t fit his Brexit template. When the answer does not suit him, prepare for the question to be changed.

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Category: A Frontpage, Brexit, Conservative Party, EU, Opinion, UK

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