A New Brexit Settlement?

Boris Johnson has Trumped Britain. Widely reviled as an untrustworthy bumbler, he has won the biggest Tory majority in decades with a three-word campaign: ‘Get Brexit Done!’ There is much to be said. The first-past-the-post electoral system rewarded Johnson with 47 more seats for little over 1 percent more in the popular vote. The media campaigned mercilessly against Labour, particularly its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats’ centrism faces near extinction. Scottish independence has become more likely. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party sacrificed itself for the Conservatives by not running seats they held, only in Labour ones to draw away its working class voters. Transatlantic links surfaced with talk that Nigel Farage would soon to work on the Trump Campaign. However, we must leave all these for another day. Dispatching two emerging myths is more urgent.

The first is that Johnson made the election about Brexit against Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to make it about the future of British society. However, Brexit itself has never been about Brexit but about the Conservatives inability to win majorities after 4 decades of punitive and miserly neoliberal austerity. Brexit is little more than the Conservatives’ dangerously clever trick for this.

When, frustrated at his minority of 2010, Cameron won a majority in 2015 promising Brexit, he staked the country’s future for party political gain. Johnson and his European Research Group, themselves less convinced Brexiteers than clear that it was the only way to securing the Tory vote and, for Johnson, the Tory Party leadership, engineered the unexpected referendum result with much campaigning snake oil. The referendum result left the country’s political system between the rock of having to deliver on a democratic verdict and the hard place of having to sever economic limbs to do so. That has been the logic of Britain’s tumultuous politics in the past three and a half years.

Johnson won Thursday’s victory by promising to liberate exhausted voters from the nerve-wrackingly unending Brexit saga. However, it is easier said than done. Even if Britain leaves the EU on 31 January 2020 on the ‘deal’ that Johnson has negotiated, and this remains a big if given Johnson’s about turns and flip-flops, it is a deal which leaves the British people and the environment bereft of the superior legal protections that the EU afforded. True, opposition parties cannot stay Johnson’s hand, but the deal’s adverse electoral consequences for the Conservatives may. The hard work of negotiating the actual terms of the deal also remains. No matter its shape, such Brexit as occurs now will be little more than a new phase in Britain’s long-standing one-foot-in-one-foot-out relation with the EU. Only one thing recommend Johnson’s deal: to secure it, Johnson had to break with his party’s Unionism to permit a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If implemented, it brings the re-unification of Ireland closer a century after Irish independence in 1922, finally closing the book on Britain’s first imperial venture.

The second myth is that Johnson’s 2o19 victory is a watershed, like the 1945 Labour and 1979 Thatcher victories. The first inaugurated the postwar left-of-Centre Keynesian Welfarist Settlement and the second marked the neoliberal counterrevolution. Both defined politics for decades. Has Johnson engineered a new settlement?

A settlement must settle something, at least for a time. Johnson’s victory has settled little and will unsettle much. The pound’s steep rise on news of Johnson’s victory and its equally steep fall as sobering realisations set in is one indication. Will Britain leave the EU on the deal Johnson negotiated or, knowing that it will only make the job of ruling Britain harder, will he use his majority to soften it conveniently (for his Conservatives, needless to say, not Britain) or find one new gimmick? What new uncertainties will arise form the actual Brexit negotiations that follow? Can Johnson really afford to settle Brexit and destroy the goose whose golden eggs have become so critical to the Conservatives’ electoral chances?

Most fundamentally, thanks to Farage’s strategic decision, Johnson won by taking constituencies hardest hit by Britain’s industrial decline through joblessness, cuts to services and general hopelessness. Though circumstances have forced Tory leaders into a rhetorical centrism and Johnson claims to be a ‘One Nation Tory’, little in their policies substantiates these claims and soon there will be less. Johnson wishes to replace EU relations with a new closeness to the US. The resulting economic pain for the British public can only make it harder for the Conservatives to win elections, prompting them into wilder and more disruptive stratagems.