VIEW FROM LONDON

Brexit, What Brexit? Unconcerned Londoners Enjoy Summer While World Worries   

Ashwin Ahmad London 6 July 2019

The shadow of Brexit may have created world headlines and caused worries about the UK’s economic prospects once Britain leaves the European Union but there is little evidence of this gloom affecting the common man on the sunny streets of London. However, not everyone is happy. While the UK may not be suffering a heat wave to the same extent as its European counterparts – temperatures in parts of France reached 45 degrees – the weather hovering at an unusually high 28-30 degrees, has echoed the heated remarks and frayed tempers of Britain’s parliamentarians on the issue.

The loudest voices are coming from the Conservative candidates Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, both of whom are in a neck-and-neck race to be the next occupant of No. 10. The two candidates are as alike as chalk and cheese. Hunt is seen as a measured man with much experience, he was Culture and Health Secretary before becoming Foreign Secretary – a job that Boris indirectly handed over to him when he quit last year over Theresa May’s Brexit plan.

But sadly for Hunt that does not seem to be enough. In fact, his sterling qualities may actually be going against him. 

Dubbed by the local media as ‘Theresa-in-Trousers’, Hunt seems to be losing the popularity context to the infamous Boris. Despite his changing positions on Brexit, despite his derogatory references to homosexuals and Muslim women wearing niqabs – he called them ‘bumboys’ and ‘letter-boxes’ in an article, despite him attending a Tory leadership debate while embroiled in a recent scandal involving his live-in partner, Boris has charisma and this is what Hunt lacks.

In a scenario reminiscent of the race for president in the U.S. between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Boris has found that his controversial remarks, his scandals, and his colourful personal life is working for him as it did for Donald Trump in his race to be president. This could be summed up by an article in The Daily Telegraph which solemnly stated, ‘The race to be prime minister is between Boris Johnson and Jeremy (Who?)’

It is a given that The Daily Telegraph does not mirror all of the media opinions in the UK. But a walk around central London will reveal that in most places, be it cafes, local grocery stores, hotels or major shopping outlets like Marks and Spencer, there will be right-wing opinion newspapers and not The Guardian and The Independent who are scathing in their criticism of Boris.  The irony could not be starker. While the rest of the world who read these newspapers online form their opinions of Britain and British politics through their coverage the majority of the British public seem to be exposed to something quite different.

The perception of this writer is that there has been a hardening of attitudes in the British capital with a cross-section of people wanting Boris because he will ‘take a tougher stance against Europe.’ This again sounds reminiscent to what a majority of Americans sought from Donald Trump when he was elected president – bring back American jobs by taking a tougher stance against the world. Also, like the Americans, the British seem to be sick of the status quo and this is where the maverick Boris is winning the popularity contest.

However, the fuss over Brexit and who will be the country’s next prime minister does not seem to be bothering the British unduly right now. With the ongoing Cricket World Cup and Wimbledon sports is dominating news coverage. Great coverage was also being given to the Women’s Football World Cup, where Britain had a shot at glory before it lost in the semifinals to the U.S. This has ensured that governance matters have been delegated to learned columnists and on the back pages in many newspapers here.

On a practical note, it seems almost impossible to imagine how any British prime minister could implement a hard Brexit. From off-licences (small stores which sell everyday items) to restaurants, to five-star hotels and many other places, most of the staff are East European, namely Polish and Russian. From West Europe, Italians form a large number of people working in the UK and from the subcontinent i.e. Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, along with Arabs, make up the rest. If all these migrants are ever told to go, one can envisage London coming to a standstill. Like the ‘Wall’ that Trump promised, Brexit can be attained but the economic and social costs will be painfully high.

It’s no surprise then that Brexit will dominate the agenda as the estimated 1,60,000 Conservative party members get set to vote for their candidate. Senior party leaders are being canvassed by the candidates and former British PM Sir John Major has recently announced his support for Hunt. The winner will be declared on July 23 and after that that new PM will have to begin the unenviable task in the next three months of ensuring a deal with Europe that makes everyone happy.

Boris, who is currently dominating the polls, seems the most likely to be PM. 

However, tough questioning by Tory members on how he would handle major issues such as that of Scotland’s bid for independence, the safe return of Iranian-British journalist Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (who has been jailed by Tehran for ‘spying’) along with recent media reports stating that Theresa May did not trust him with state secrets when he was Foreign Secretary has left him looking shaky at times. With the knives out in full flow, the race to be the next PM promises to be a bloody one.

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