U.K.’s ‘Boring’ Politics Still Hold Plenty of Risks for Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister in London, U.K. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)  

U.K.’s ‘Boring’ Politics Still Hold Plenty of Risks for Boris Johnson

(Bloomberg) -- After a year of late-night knife-edge votes that saw the pound whipsaw and Theresa May hounded out of office, the House of Commons passed a Brexit deal without a hint of excitement on Thursday -- and no one doubts the U.K. will leave the European Union at the end of January.

It’s a strange sensation for those used to every vote being a trauma. While May avoided calling any votes at all for more than a month because her government was so stuck, they’ve been coming thick and fast since Prime Minister Boris Johnson decisively won the December general election.

For Conservatives, who sometimes seemed bemused the lack of a majority should prevent the government doing what it wanted, it’s a welcome return to the ways things are supposed to work. But the uncertainties of Brexit and the experience of former premier Margaret Thatcher, whose name was cheered by Tory lawmakers on Wednesday, suggest they have no room to be complacent.

The U.K.’s parties are coming to terms with the realignment of politics since the 2016 EU referendum and Johnson’s majority in Parliament -- won on a promise to swiftly leave the bloc and increase spending on public services -- solves one Brexit problem, not all of them.

‘Boring’

“Parliamentary politics is boring,” said Anand Menon, professor of politics at King’s College London. “But wider politics isn’t. We have the governing party and possibly the opposition party undergoing revolutions. What are the Conservatives for? Are they a small-state party, or a tax-and-spend party?”

There are also immediate practical issues outside Parliament. For a start, there are further negotiations to be conducted with the EU, with Johnson insisting a deal must be struck by the end of the year.

On election night, one leading Brexit supporter, Mark Francois, was asked by the BBC about the possibility the EU would demand Britain followed its rules in return for a comprehensive trade deal. He was dismissive: “They can demand what they want. The British people have emphatically rejected that tonight.”

Johnson’s victory certainly strengthens his hand, in the sense that the EU will no longer be looking over the prime minister’s shoulder to try to work out if Parliament is going to agree. But Francois’s suggestion that the bloc will have to change its negotiating position because British voters didn’t like it may be over-optimistic.

Compromise?

What the majority gives Johnson is not just the strength to hold his position, but the strength to retreat. Trade experts say it’s possible for him to achieve his stated goal of getting a trade agreement with the EU this year, so long as his ambitions are limited and he’s willing to make concessions.

May, lacking a majority, was hampered in her negotiations by the knowledge that to give any ground at all would outrage her party, and she couldn’t afford a single rebel voting against her.

Johnson, with his 80-seat majority, can afford a lot of rebels.

And he has achieved more than that: Just before the election, he convinced the most die-hard anti-EU MPs in his party they must accept his Brexit compromise or risk losing the prize altogether. The self-described “Spartans” of the European Research Group, who had trumpeted their refusal to surrender, are now bound into his project, committed to arguing that the Johnson Brexit compromise is no compromise at all.

Calmer Times

That means the coming months are unlikely to feature the drama and upheaval that characterized parliamentary life in 2019. The prime minister can make concessions and then, as he did with last year’s Brexit deal, avoid getting into the details of what he’s agreed.

But just because Parliament has signed something off, it doesn’t mean a government’s problems are over. Often, it means they’re just beginning.

While Johnson wants to “get Brexit done“ and move the national conversation on -- his officials even say the word “Brexit” won’t pass their lips after Jan. 31 -- this strategy is based on a bet that the negative warnings about leaving the EU prove to be unfounded.

If the erection of trade barriers between the U.K. and its closest neighbors do turn out to have an impact, the government will find the conversation keeps getting dragged back to Brexit.

Past Warning

And a parliamentary majority only makes politics predictable up to a point. Johnson’s is the largest won by a Conservative since Thatcher in 1987 -- but hers contributed to her downfall.

Using her superiority in the House of Commons, she pushed through a change to how people paid for local services, introducing what became known as the “poll tax.” It sparked riots, and, just three years after that landslide win, she was ousted by the same MPs who had backed her plan.

“Even when governments have big majorities, they can start to fall apart quite quickly under the pressure of events,” Menon at King’s College said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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