What Boris Johnson’s Big Win Means for Brexit and Scotland

Thomas Raines tells Jason Naselli about the impact the large Conservative majority will have on the next phase of Brexit negotiations and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Expert comment Updated 18 September 2020 Published 13 December 2019 3 minute READ

Thomas Raines

Former Director, Europe Programme

Jason Naselli

Former Senior Digital Editor

Boris Johnson speaks after the Conservatives secured a majority in the UK general election. Photo: Getty Images.

Boris Johnson speaks after the Conservatives secured a majority in the UK general election. Photo: Getty Images.

What does the UK election result mean for Brexit and forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU?

The most important thing is that it means Brexit will definitely happen. Since the referendum, we’ve had three-and-a-half years of continued uncertainty where all outcomes were still possible. We now know that Brexit will become irreversible from 31 January.

That’s the biggest thing, because I think that will have a big psychological impact on politics, both in the UK and also on the EU side. The EU has been working with a partner that has been unsure about its direction, and perhaps some had still hoped that the process might still be reversed, but that direction is now completely clear.

Obviously the first order of business is to pass the withdrawal agreement, which should be pretty straightforward given the majority that the Conservatives have. That’s a formality now.

Then, the question becomes about the level of ambition for the next year. It is an exceptionally ambitious timetable to negotiate, ratify and implement a new relationship before the end of the transition period in December 2020.

What is achievable by the end of next year?

I think there are three possible outcomes here. One: that timetable doesn’t work and Boris Johnson follows through on his pledge to leave the transition period anyway, leading to a ‘no trade deal’ outcome.

Two: the negotiations are able to deliver something by the end of 2020, either because the depth and ambition of any agreement is relatively low level (what Michel Barnier has called a ‘vital minimum’) and/or because they come up with some type of compromise on the process which is not called an extension, but something else: a type of temporary agreement or a new implementation period.

This is a situation where you might have a bare-bones agreement for the end of the transition period, but with an extended period of negotiation for different unresolved issues. The EU will probably insist upon level playing field guarantees and fishing access rights as a component of any such agreement.

Three: Boris Johnson breaks his manifesto pledge not to extend the transition. Now, he has stared down the barrel of leaving with no deal before and he made a political judgment that it was better to make significant compromises on his negotiating position than to follow through with ‘no deal’. I suspect he might make that same judgment again.

No option is ideal. The first is the most economically disruptive, the second means the EU will be in an even stronger position to dictate terms and the third means breaking a manifesto pledge.

How important is that end of transition deadline now? It was an important issue for the Brexit Party and hardliners in the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. But given the size of a majority, he may need to worry less about them. Is the transition deadline that important to people who voted Conservative, especially if he can show that he has taken the UK out of the EU by the end of January?

I think there may indeed be some political space for Johnson here, given the size of his majority and given that the first phase of Brexit will have been done, along with the debate about withdrawal.

There will be a lot of difficult, technical negotiations in all sorts of areas, some of which I think will become quite rancorous, but won’t necessarily become front page news in the way some of the first phase of negotiations has, not least because you won’t have the theatre of a hung parliament.

Hopefully, there will be more focus on the substance of the agreement, and the debate will be about the consequences of divergence versus staying more aligned with the EU, which is basically the central question now about the future relationship.

I still think for UK prime ministers to pick arbitrary dates, and then to make domestic political promises based around them, actually undermines the UK’s negotiating position. It would be in Britain’s interest to have more flexibility rather than a ticking clock.

Moving to the other big story from the night, the SNP won 48 of 59 seats in Scotland. How does the debate over Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom play out from here?

The SNP has really strengthened its position, more than many expected. This is now set up for a huge constitutional struggle over the future of the United Kingdom.

I think there is a key dilemma for Scottish independence supporters, which is that on the one hand Brexit greatly strengthens the political case for independence. The difference between the political preferences in Scotland and the rest of the UK, particularly in England, is a perfect demonstration of that.

At the same time, once the UK has left the EU, independence becomes much more difficult technically and economically. There will be many of the same difficulties that there have been in discussing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland. There will be a difficult debate over the currency. There are all sorts of challenges to creating a trade or regulatory border between England and Scotland. This is particularly true if there is a harder Brexit outcome, where Britain leaves the EU without a large amount of regulatory alignment.

On demands for a second independence referendum, I think in the first instance Boris Johnson will simply refuse to hold one. It’s probably not in his short-term interest to do anything else. Theresa May played it this way in 2017, repeatedly saying ‘now is not the time’.

In a similar way I think Johnson will just try to ride the pressure out, to the point where the SNP will need to face the challenges of advocating independence with the UK outside the EU. The next flashpoint will be the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2021.

Ultimately, though, it will become a democratically unsustainable position if Scotland continues to vote for the SNP, and refusing to sanction a second independence referendum might only reinforce that sentiment.

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