UK elections: Does massive Tory win mean a softer Brexit?

UK elections: Does massive Tory win mean a softer Brexit?

The Tories thundered to victory in yesterday’s UK elections, eliminating the fears of a hung Parliament with their biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s last election. Johnson celebrated the win in fine humor (humour?) after confirming his own seat in his constituency, offering some amused thanks to “Lord Buckethead” and “Elmo” on the dais as well. The Conservatives have “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done,” Johnson exuberantly declared.

But a Brexit on what terms? Will it be the deal Johnson cut with the EU just before the election — or will it be a no-deal Brexit?

The EU believes that Johnson now has room for a negotiated Brexit, thanks to a majority that would allow him to ignore the hardliners:

EU leaders have expressed cautious confidence that Boris Johnson will pivot to back a close economic relationship with the bloc and called for swift ratification of the withdrawal agreement after the prime minister’s election triumph.

The size of Johnson’s majority was welcomed in Brussels, where the 27 heads of state and government have gathered for a two-day summit.

Charles Michel, the European council president, said he expected the withdrawal agreement to be passed through parliament within weeks to allow the UK to leave with a deal in 49 days’ time.

Ireland’s Leo Varadkar says that Johnson has expressed sotto voce that his previous flexibility was the path Johnson wanted to continue. That even includes, Varadkar said, a willingness to align policies with the EU for more frictionless trade post-Brexit:

Johnson had initially approached the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with bullish, uncompromising talk, but swiftly broke his red lines to concede to a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, hinted at private assurances from Johnson that he would sign up to EU standards in order to secure a trade deal.

“I’d like that to ensure we still have tariff-free and quota-free trade between Britain and the EU and to have a set of minimum standards so that nobody feels that there’s unfair competition or anyone’s trying to undercut them when it comes to labour rights, environmental protection and issues like that,” he said. “And [from] my conversations with Mr Johnson, I think he’s probably in a similar space, so it’s a case of now getting on with it.”

The Washington Post also sees Johnson’s big win as a plus for future UK-EU relations. This rests on a rather large assumption, however:

Privately, some diplomats who work on Brexit said that a sweeping majority for pro-Brexit Johnson, paradoxically, might result in Britain staying more closely aligned with the E.U. than if he had weak control over Parliament. A big majority, the diplomats reasoned, gives Johnson more flexibility to make compromises during what is likely to be a year of lightning-fast negotiations on a trade deal. If Johnson had only a few votes to spare, he would be more vulnerable to be taken hostage by Brexit hard-liners who insist on the sharpest possible split from Europe.

This works if the election produced more moderates shifting into the Tories. There is already some evidence of that being the case, thanks to big Conservative wins in traditionally Labourite constituencies, where Brexit might be popular but anti-European sentiments are low. It also suits the long-term issues around Brexit, as the European Union will still be the UK’s main trading partner. Johnson will cut a bigger deal with the US now, but proximity and size makes the EU indispensable to the British economy. At some point, Johnson has to make a good deal there too, and his exit from the EU will determine to some extent just how good a deal can be had.

Therefore, the most likely outcome from Johnson’s huge win is a quick divorce on the terms Johnson has already negotiated. He doesn’t need any seats from Northern Ireland to hold his majority, and with that the Irish Sea trading border makes the most sense for a quick divorce. Johnson’s deal only just barely lost in the previous parliament, but with 50 or so more seats and the country firmly behind the PM, it should sail through on its next attempt. After that, everyone can get down to business on repairing the trading relationship and softening the blow on both sides of the English Channel.

It won’t be a softer Brexit than the deal Johnson signed before the election, but it might be a softer landing than it looked at that time. That is, if Johnson can stick the landing.

Update: The Guardian believes that Johnson’s deal will be brought back before Parliament next week:

Boris Johnson plans to bring his Brexit deal back to parliament next week, as his Conservative party was predicted to have its best general election result since 1987 after more than nine years in government. …

The chancellor, Sajid Javid, told the BBC that a majority Conservative government would arrange “the smoothest of all exits from the EU, while the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told Sky News it would be much easier to negotiate a free-trade deal with the EU with a majority.

“If we’ve got the kind of majority that is suggested, this will very much strengthen and reinforce our position in phase two,” he said. Raab – who retook his Surrey seat of Esher and Walton, despite rumours he could lose – said it would also be easier for the EU as it would have a negotiating partner that was “much more predictable”.

The European council president, Charles Michel, said EU leaders would discuss the results of the election on Friday, but that there was “a strong message” coming from the UK. “We will see if it’s possible for the British parliament to accept the withdrawal agreement to take a decision, and if it is the case, we are ready for the next steps.”

Predictability would be a nice change of pace for all sides. Johnson has the kind of majority that affords that luxury.

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