World / Politics | ANALYSIS

Winning big, Johnson on course to deliver swift Brexit

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a resounding election victory Friday that will allow him to take Britain out of the European Union in matter of weeks.

For Johnson, whose 20-week tenure in power has been marked by chaotic scenes in Parliament and stark division on the streets over the U.K.’s tortuous departure from the European Union, victory in Thursday’s contest was vindication.

Educated at the country’s most elite school and recognizable by his bombastic style, the 55-year-old must not only deliver Brexit but also convince Britons that the contentious divorce, which would lead to lengthy trade talks, is worth it.

Although the scale of the Conservatives’ projected victory makes Brexit all but inevitable, it also could lead to a softer break with the European Union, analysts said Friday.

Previously, Johnson had to rely on hard-line euroskeptic Conservative MPs in the European Research Group, who have been pressing him for a looser trading relationship with Brussels.

“With a big majority, Boris Johnson can ignore ERG and go for a softer Brexit if he wishes,” noted Charles Grant, director of the think tank Center for European Reform.

Despite Brexit dominating the election, there has been little scrutiny of Johnson’s exit deal, and even less discussion about the pros and cons of any future trade agreements, while Johnson himself has given out mixed signals about what he wants to achieve.

“Johnson will have to decide whether to remain closely aligned with the EU, or diverge sharply,” said Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eurasia Group. “Crucially, Johnson will not be beholden to the 20 hard-line Brexiteers in the European Research Group.”

Johnson had promised to forge a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU, which would give Britain greater freedom from EU rules but would involve more barriers and costs to trade.

But campaigning at a factory in northeast England this week, he sought to reassure workers. He said his plan “protects supply chains, it means we leave the EU with our relationships absolutely intact, so that we have a zero-tariff, zero-quota relationship with the EU.”

Tony Travers, a policy expert at the London School of Economics, said the Conservatives’ success in manufacturing areas could force Johnson’s hand.

Early results suggest the party is taking a swath of seats from the Labour Party in its industrial heartlands.

These “still have a large amount of manufacturing, production industries, some agriculture in them — areas which, if there was a hard Brexit — a no-deal Brexit — would be hard hit,” Travers said. “It makes it more difficult for Boris Johnson now to deliver anything other than a softer Brexit.”

In Tokyo, the top government spokesman said Friday that Japan will make efforts to reduce the impact of Brexit on Japanese businesses following Britain’s departure from the European Union in late January.

“We have requested the United Kingdom and the European Union to avoid a no-deal Brexit and minimize the impact on operations by Japanese firms,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference. “We will observe how things develop and take the necessary measures.”

Suga also said Tokyo will seek an early conclusion of a Japan-U.K. free trade agreement following Brexit.

Johnson has said he hopes to have free trade deals with Japan and the United States within the next three years.

The landslide Conservative win marks the ultimate failure of opponents of Britain’s departure from the European Union who plotted to thwart a 2016 referendum vote through legislative combat in Parliament and prompted some of the biggest protests in recent British history.

Johnson won an outright majority in the 650-seat Parliament after an exit poll showed the Conservatives on course to win a landslide 368 seats, the biggest Conservative national election win since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 triumph.

“I think this will turn out to be a historic election that gives us now, in this new government, the chance to respect the democratic will of the British people,” Johnson said after winning his seat of Uxbridge.

He said the Conservatives appeared to have won “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.”

U.S. President Donald Trump said it was “looking like a big win for Boris.”

Labour were forecast to win 203 seats, the worst result for the party since 1935, after offering voters a second referendum and the most radical socialist government in generations. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would step down.

With results from across Britain indicating the exit poll was accurate, Johnson’s bet on a snap election has paid off, meaning he will swiftly ratify the Brexit deal he struck with the EU so that the United Kingdom can leave on Jan. 31 — 10 months later than initially planned.

But nearly half a century after joining what has become the world’s largest trading bloc, Johnson faces the daunting challenge of striking new international trade deals, preserving London’s position as a top global financial capital and keeping the United Kingdom together.

Sterling soared and was on course for one of its biggest one-day gains in the past two decades. The pound hit a 19-month high of $1.3516 versus the dollar and its strongest levels against the euro since shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum.

As of 0510 GMT, Johnson’s Conservatives had made a net gain of 41 seats.

After nearly four years of Brexit debate that has riven the United Kingdom, deadlocked Parliament and shocked allies, a majority will allow Johnson to lead the United Kingdom out of the club it first joined in 1973.

But Brexit is far from over.He faces the daunting task of negotiating a trade agreement with the EU, possibly in just 11 months, while also negotiating another trade deal with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The outcome of the negotiations will shape the future of Britain’s economy. After Jan. 31, Britain will enter a transition period during which it will negotiate a new relationship with the remaining 27 EU states.

This can run until the end of December 2022 under the current rules, but the Conservatives made an election promise not to extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020.

Johnson called the first Christmas election since 1923 to break what he said was the paralysis of Britain’s political system after more than three years of crisis over Brexit.

The face of the victorious “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum, Johnson fought the election under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done,” promising to end the deadlock and spend more on health, education and the police.

He was helped early in the election by Farage’s Brexit Party, which stood down hundreds of candidates to prevent the pro-Brexit vote from being split. Early results showed the Brexit Party had poached a significant number of voters from Labour.

While Brexit framed the election, the slow-motion exit from the EU has variously fatigued, enthused and enraged voters while eroding loyalties to the two major parties.

Results showed Johnson’s strategy had successfully breached Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” of seats across the Brexit-supporting areas of the Midlands and northern England where he cast his political foes as the out-of-touch enemies of Brexit.

The Conservatives took Sedgefield, once held by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful leader.

A defeated Labour now faces a civil war between the socialists who control it and more moderate factions that will demand power.

“This is obviously a very disappointing night for the Labour Party with the result that we’ve got,” Corbyn said after being re-elected in his own north London electoral seat. He said he would not lead the party in any future elections.

Weary Labour candidates said his leadership had played a major role in the defeat.

Ruth Smeeth, who said she also expected to lose her seat in Stoke-on-Trent, laid the blame firmly at Corbyn’s door.

“He should have gone many, many, many months ago,” she said.

The Liberal Democrats were forecast to win 13 seats, the exit poll said. Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat party leader, lost her seat to the Scottish National Party.

The Brexit Party were not predicted to win any.

The Scottish National Party, which strongly opposes Brexit, would win 55 of the 59 seats in Scotland, the poll said, setting the scene for it to demand a second independence vote, after secession was rejected by 55 percent to 45 percent in 2014.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Johnson did not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the EU.

“We don’t want Brexit,” Sturgeon said. “Boris Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the European Union; he emphatically does not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the European Union.”