Tough roads ahead for Boris Johnson

Pressures on the British economy and post-Brexit fiscal strains could hamper his enthusiasm of implementing his electoral promises in the immediate near future

The resounding victory scripted by the Conservatives in the elections held on December 12 by securing 365 seats in the House of Commons under the leadership of Boris Johnson is a historic victory for the Conservatives and a great morale booster for Prime Minister Johnson whose brief past tenure of few months had been marked by legal setbacks, ‘scorched-earth politics and unrelenting chaos’, as one critic has pointed out.

While going in for the polls, Boris Johnson had gambled and he came out with flying colours. It is almost after a hiatus of 32 years that the Conservatives have cruised to such a resounding victory reminiscent of 1987 when the Conservatives had scored such a victory under Margaret Thatcher. At that juncture Prime Minister Thatcher had asked the EU, “We want our money back”, and this time Boris Johnson’s demand boiled down to just three words, “Get Brexit done.”

Defying pre-poll surveys and predictions, some of which had even gone to the extent of predicting his being tossed out of office, Boris Johnson has catapulted his party at the helm with a thumping majority. Electoral drubbing faced by the Labour Party that has won 203 seats has brought its leadership under political eclipse.

Nevertheless, the stunning victory recorded by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has secured 48 seats and is likely to ask for a referendum for the independence of Scotland, may spell some trouble for the Conservatives in near future. A defining feature of this election, apart from the resounding victory of the Conservatives and the SNP, is the increase in number of representation of women in the new House.

Representing just over a third of all MPs, women have won 220 seats in a House of 650 seats compared with 208 in the 2017 election. Representation of Indian-origin MPs in the new House has also gone up to 15 from 12 in the outgoing House.

Many experts feel that Boris Johnson will be leading Britain through its “most momentous transition” since the Second World War. Soon after leading his party to a thumping victory, Boris Johnson laid bare the challenge that lies ahead for his party, especially when he attempted to assure his voters by saying: “I will make it my mission to work night and day, flat out to prove that you were right in voting for me this time, and to earn your support in the future.”

The biggest challenge for Boris government is Brexit along with toning up the health of ailing economy and meet post-Brexit challenges of maintaining trade relations with the European Union (EU), fostering politico-economic relations with the United States and other developed economies along with addressing domestic challenges.

Challenge of Brexit

Undoubtedly, even before going for the general election Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set the date for Brexit for January 31, 2020 when the UK would leave the EU; nevertheless, he still needs to go through Parliament. According to some experts, the default position, if no deal is passed, is that the UK would leave without one.

Nevertheless, given the fact that premier Johnson commands majority in the House, it would be easy for the Conservative government to get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that lays the framework of Brexit happening, is likely to be tabled in the House of Commons next week with the avowed objective of getting it passed in time for Brexit to happen on January 31, 2020. 

Many experts opine that Brexit is a complicated and protracted process; and the UK leaving the EU on January 31, 2010 will be just one step in that direction. While eager to have as much access as may be possible for its goods and services to the EU, the UK under the Conservatives is concurrently determined to leave the customs union and single market along with terminating the overall jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

However, this is seemingly a protracted process and EU can take longer time than the UK expects in agreeing to a formal negotiation because all 27 remaining EU member states and the European Parliament have to be in agreement. This leads to the surmise that no formal talks in this regard can be expected before March 2020.

Besides, these negotiations are subject to reach a final agreement by the end of June 2020. According to experts, this is the crucial point at which the UK has to make up its mind whether or not to extend the transition period.

Given the fact that the British premier has ruled out any form of extension, and in that case if no trade deal is hammered out by the end of June 2020; thereafter, the UK will be confronted with the prospect of leaving the EU without one by December-end 2020. Even in the eventuality of an agreement having been reached, as some critics point out, such an agreement requires ratification before its coming into force and that is a time-consuming process spanning over several months. While disinclined to subscribe to the argument of premier Boris Johnson that alignment of the UK to EU rules should make the negotiations straightforward, critics point out that the UK desire of having the freedom of deviating from EU rules to enter into deals with other countries, entails the likelihood of making negotiations with the EU more complicated. Apart from sorting out the mechanism of trade deal, the UK is also required to work out its strategy of cooperating with the EU on security, law enforcement and other deals in number of areas wherein cooperation is called for. In other words, Brexit is going to be a tough test for Boris Johnson government in weeks to come.

On the eve of EU Council meeting in Brussels on December 12, the Council president told the media persons: “We are ready. We have decided what are priorities.” 

Economic challenges

Some British economists have opined that Brexit movement has already cast its long shadow over country’s economic growth and it is going to affect UK economy in coming years as well. It is also pointed out that the UK can expect a further 3-4 per cent hit to its GDP in the long-term once the country leaves the EU on January 31. EU is the biggest trading partner of the UK and latter’s departure from the EU market entails the likelihood of making the UK confront new obstacles to its trade and also bear the brunt of increased tariffs on imports.

Some experts have warned of a longer-term impact on FDI as well. While disagreeing with the optimism of Boris Johnson of defining his new relationship with EU and hammering out a far-reaching trade deal, most experts are skeptical about it because such negotiations are prone to last for years. Some analysts believe that what the UK will save from not contributing annually to the EU budget the double of that it will lose in public finance in the long run.

Referring to absence of knowledge about future trade deals to be entered into either with the EU or other countries, some experts also mention about unknown shocks like banking crisis, stock market crash, spike in oil prices that can pose serious challenges for the Boris government. Allusion is also made to recent leak of Michel Barnier’s frank assessment that can hinder the British move to enter into a comprehensive trade deal with the EU by the deadline of December 31, 2020.

According to some economic analysts, a no-deal Brexit could cost the UK some 6/7 per cent of GDP over the long run thereby culminating in cut in the quality of public services, increase in unemployment, depressed wages and diminution in investment. Not ruling out the probability of a protracted recession under any Brexit scenario, many analysts opine that shrinking of fiscal resources could make the task of the Conservative government cumbersome to implement its manifesto, especially in the realms of public services, tax cut, public spending, NHS, international aid, education, infrastructure etc.

Cautioning against the euphoria over slight jump in the currency in the wake of mammoth mandate, currency strategists aver that the surge would be contained as the UK enters the new and equally challenging phase of negotiating its prospective trading relationship with the EU prior to the end of 2020. In other words, the Conservative government will have to wrestle with economic challenges in coming weeks along with Brexit.

Impact on foreign policy

The Brexit will be impacting the British foreign policy both in the short-term as well as in the long-term. Negotiating a settlement amicably in the realm of trade with the EU may not affect relations between the UK and leading EU member nations like Germany and France; nevertheless, no trade deal in the post-Brexit phase could spell obstacles for London to straighten its relations with EU member states.

Conveying her felicitation to Prime Minister Boris on his resounding victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her country’s close cooperation and friendship. However, the French President minced no words in warning the UK that the more the latter opted to deregulate its economy after the Brexit, the more it will lose access to the EU market. Russia has also sought a “constructive dialogue” with Johnson government.

However, US President Donald Trump is sanguine about striking a “ massive new trade deal with the UK after Brexit; and in a recent tweet President Trump has said: “This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the EU Celebrate Boris,” Here the question is whether the British Prime Minister will trust President Trump, especially in the wake of trump’s trade wars with China and some of the EU member states. .

Way ahead

The road ahead is not smooth for Boris Johnson to tread on. Pressures on the British economy and post-Brexit fiscal strains could hamper his enthusiasm of implementing his electoral promises in the immediate near future. Undoubtedly, he has got a massive mandate; nevertheless, he has also to deliver on the promises as well.

Enthused by its massive victory after securing 48 seats, the SNP may push for a second independence referendum to which the Conservative government is opposed. During his initial months in power, Boris Johnson is expected to be bogged down with Brexit that has earned him such a resounding electoral victory. Other priorities may be relegated to background for the time being or given scant attention till the knot of Brexit is untied. 

Massive mandate has tasked Boris Johnson with the herculean onus of defining the UK’s future role in the world and it also delineates a massive transformation of British politics that will reverberate through the country in coming years.