A Trini election it wasn’t. No mega-rallies, no motorcades, no party T-shirts, and no string of corruption scandals. With Britain cold, damp and doused in winter darkness at four in the afternoon, who’s surprised?
Last week’s British election was about policy, and one policy in particular—Boris Johnson’s promise to Get Brexit Done, three and a half years after the narrow referendum vote to pull out of Europe.
Where the election resembled T&T was the first-past-the-post voting system. Boris Johnson took just 44 per cent of the popular vote for his Get Brexit Done manifesto. Most voters—52 per cent—chose parties which wanted a second referendum. But with the Labour opposition at just 32 per cent, Johnson won a massive parliamentary majority of 80. Such are the joys and perils of a split vote.
Unlike previous British elections, this one was not about social class. Johnson’s Conservatives did better among the blue-collar working class than they did with their traditional middle and upper income supporters.
Regional loyalties were shaken. Working class seats in the north of England which were solidly Labour for generations switched to the Conservatives. It’s like Laventille suddenly voting UNC. Labour held former Conservative strongholds in the south such as Canterbury, but too few to compensate.
There was a big split by age. Labour was way ahead with the under-40s. The over-45s voted overwhelmingly Conservative.
The old split on social issues was blurred. Britain’s first openly gay Muslim MP was elected as a Conservative in a Labour-heartland working class seat. There are now 45 MPs who identify as LGBT, of whom 19 are Conservative.
One in five Labour MPs are now black or minority ethnic. For the Conservatives, that figure is six per cent—but their Cabinet includes senior figures like the finance minister, Sajid Javid and the home secretary (security minister) Priti Patel. That’s with the overall non-white population at around 14 per cent.
So, what happens next with Get Brexit Done? Parliament votes today on high-speed legislation to get Britain out of Europe in January. But talks on a new trading relationship have not yet started.
There’s a transition period running to the end of 2020. Britain sticks with EU rules, while sitting edgily in the departure lounge. Either side can ask for a further two-year extension at any point up to July. But Johnson plans to outlaw any request for extra time.
So that means a full-blown trade agreement to fix and finalise in less than one year. The EU’s trade deal with Canada took seven.
The pound sterling jumped four cents against the US dollar and five against the Euro when Boris Johnson romped home last week. But by yesterday, it dropped back to pre-election levels against both currencies.
Back in 2016, Boris Johnson said trade negotiations with the EU would be the easiest ever. The foreign exchange traders don’t seem to agree.
Johnson is pledged to reject alignment with EU rules on environmental protection, sick leave and working hours. If he sticks to that, Europe will play hard-ball on trade.
Meanwhile, countries such as Australia and New Zealand have launched WTO complaints against Britain for disrupting the existing EU trading system.
What happens if there’s no trade agreement?
British banks and financial services need access to the EU market. Vehicle manufacturers shuttle just-in-time components to and from Europe. Agriculture can’t afford export tariffs. Consumers don’t want supply-line bottlenecks on the flow of fresh food and medicines.
While trade talks bump along, voters already exhausted and angered by five years of Brexit squabbling will take another dose of bad-tempered debate. Businesses will face continuing uncertainty.
I watched BBC post-election interviews with voters in the newly-Conservative town of Burnley. After nine years of Conservative government, they complained of overcrowded housing, insecure jobs and failing public services. They had great hopes for a Boris Johnson cure-all. To keep them on board, he promises spending on health and infrastructures. That means either a Brexit economic miracle, or a load of borrowing and public debt.
Brexiters sloganise about turning Britain into a Singapore-on-Thames, a carbon copy of what was once a distant corner of the Empire. That is hard to imagine. Singapore has strong manufacturing industries. Britain junked hers in the Thatcher era. Singapore sucks in low-paid migrants from neighbouring countries. Brexit Britain wants to close its doors. Singapore’s government plans its economy meticulously. The Brexit vision is a free-for-all.
Meanwhile, Scotland looks like trouble. The pro-independence and anti-Brexit Scottish National Party took 48 of the 59 Scottish seats.
Trouble ahead, too in Northern Ireland. For the first time ever, pro-British Unionist parties won only a minority of parliamentary seats. A switch from British to Irish no longer looks like a distant dream.
If Labour remains in disarray, Johnson will have clear sailing at the national level despite any Brexit bumps. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn disastrously declared himself neutral on Brexit, the dominant issue of the day. He has now agreed to step down. The succession battle will be a bloodbath. Can a new leader turn the party round? Or just make more mess-up? There’s plenty to play for.