The UK Election: A Decision on Brexit?

By Lea Schiller

The British polls opened at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 12th of December. Just 12 hours later, the first estimates gave the Conservatives an absolute majority. A few days afterwards, this result was confirmed. The United Kingdom had overwhelmingly voted in favour of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party, granting them 365 seats out of 650. This made it the party’s biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s third term in 1987. Meanwhile, the Labour Party lagged behind with 203 seats, which marks their biggest defeat since 1935. They lost many of their seats in traditional Labour constituencies in the North and the Midlands, and especially among the usually Labour-based working class, where many changed their vote to Conservative.

That Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech outside 10 Downing Street, saying the election results provide him with “an overwhelming mandate … to get Brexit done”. And while the distribution of seats in the Parliament certainly backs his claim, the distribution of votes tells another story entirely. In total, all parties who openly campaigned in favour of leaving the European Union combined only gained 47% of the votes while attaining 56% of seats. The Conservatives alone are right now in a position to go through with Brexit – but this is largely due to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, in which only one Member of Parliament represents each area and therefore causes the votes for the other candidates to be irrelevant.

Meanwhile in Brussels, the results have been met with mixed feelings. Regret over the UK’s decision to leave is still prevailing, but as the President of the European Council expressed, the decisive vote promises clarity that is important for the next round of Brexit negotiations. Because even though Johnson is preparing to ratify the Brexit deal in January, this would only end the UK’s EU membership – and the more complicated step of negotiating a future trade deal still awaits. Johnson has promised to deliver this by the end of 2020, but in Brussels, few believe this is possible (Adler, 2019), even if the Prime Minister sticks to the Free Trade Agreement the EU is currently preparing to offer. And since this deal hinges on the UK agreeing to keep EU regulations, there are doubts on whether Johnson will consider this to be a good offer. For now, the direction the new government in London will choose is unclear.

And there is one other noteworthy outcome of this vote: in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained 13 seats, granting them 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats. In 2016, Scotland voted in favour of remaining in the EU – ever since then, tensions have been rising between Edinburgh and London. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon described a possible independence referendum as having been “very much at the heart of the SNP’s campaign”, and after their success in the election, she believes she has the mandate to offer people a choice. Another independence referendum for Scotland might therefore be on the way.

Looking forward, Boris Johnson has set December of 2020 to finish all trade negotiations with the EU. If he cannot make this deadline, he will have to ask for another delay in the summer. And as long as no trade deal has been signed, Britain will remain in a transition state, in which it will still have adhere to EU law, even if by then it has legally terminated its membership. So even though the election has given the Conservatives a comfortable majority, complications and uncertainties are not yet out of the way and the Prime Minister will have to work to deliver Brexit in the time he promised to his voters.

Photo by Habib Ayoade on Unsplash

Resources

After election victory, Boris Johnson says ‘We are going to unite’. (2019, December 13). The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/world/europe/uk-election-brexit.html

Adler, K. (2019, December 13). UK general election: EU prepares for Brexit hardball. BBC News.Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50777995

UK results: Conservatives win majority (2019, December). BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2019/results/england

Curtice, J. (2019, December 13). General election 2019: What’s behind the Conservative victory? BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/election-2019-50774061

Watch Johnson’s first full speech as returning Prime Minister (2019, December 13). CNN. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2019/12/13/boris-johnson-full-speech-downing-street-intl-ldn-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/brexit-uk-politics-news/