NEW DELHI: The recent clashes that erupted near Downing Street as left-wing ‘Remainers’ walked down the roads chanting ‘Not my prime minister’ showed that despite Boris Johnson’s thumping electoral victory and his message for ‘healing’, the nation was and is still far from coming together.
This shouldn’t have been the case. The vote which saw over 60 per cent of the electorate come out to give a thumping majority to the British prime minister should have settled the three-year-long debate on Brexit. As things stand though this isn’t happening. Nevertheless, despite the passions of these activist ‘Remainers’, Boris is set to take Britain out of the EU by January 31, 2020.
So what happened? How do we read this recent British election? Is it truly a vote for Boris and Brexit or were there other factors at play? Yes and no. Despite his charisma, oh yes, Boris – whether you like or hate him – has charisma, this was ‘an election that nobody really wanted.’
Sick of the ongoing debate over Brexit, which has seen a referendum in 2016, been an election issue in 2017, along with constant attempts by former prime minister Theresa May in parliament to hammer through a deal, the vote was a ‘vote of frustration’ which stated that Britishers just wanted an end to the debate once and for all. ‘Be done with it and move forward’ seemed to be the key message here to the politicians.
The reason for this frustration is due to incomprehension. Despite the vast media coverage, the issues and implications of Brexit are still unclear to many Britons, few of whom could tell you what Theresa May’s deal with Europe proposed, what Johnson’s new deal with Europe proposes and how will it affect them. The fact that many of these issues are highly technical and still works in progress, does not help matters.
But frustration alone wasn’t the key reason, communication played a key role too. Despite question marks surrounding his private life – Boris’s ‘run-in’ with his partner made national headlines, despite ducking into a fridge to avoid reporters, despite his ‘maverick image’ – Boris has continuously jumped ship on the Brexit issue throughout his political career – the prime minister’s message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a clear one in contrast to Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn who seemingly couldn’t make up his mind about Europe.
The truth was Corbyn was hamstrung by a split within the Labour vote. While Labour voters in the north of England, the manufacturing hub, are pro-Brexit, Labour supporters in the rest of the country primarily work in the services sector and want to ‘Remain.’ It was this contradiction that Corbyn never could resolve and though he tried to skirt around Brexit by playing up other issues such as increasing public spending especially for the NHS – an issue that arouses great passion in Britain – the message came across as confused. Boris with his one-track Brexit agenda, seized the day and won it.
Election over, the prime minister has to get busy on a host of issues. Europe has been cautious in its response. While welcoming the electoral mandate that the British PM has received, Europeans are very conscious that any ‘concessions’ to the UK will invite a backlash from European companies and hence French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted on a ‘level playing field’, something which clashes with the British PM’s bid to win ‘zero tariffs and quotas on all imports and exports.’
Also, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel points out, Britain will become, ‘a competitor on our doorstep now that it is no longer integrated in the internal market…The UK will, of course, carefully weigh up the advantages of leaving the standards that we have in the EU, and what would be the disadvantages of doing that.’
The European challenge aside, Boris should not take the support of the U.S. for granted. While President Trump has congratulated the British PM on his electoral win and called for a ‘massive’ U.S.-UK trade deal, the reality may be far from the soundbites. Trump has his own reasons for egging on Boris, as the U.S. administration does not want a strong confident EU coming up as a potential rival on the global stage, something which could happen given the differences on Nato, on Iran, and on handling Russia. But does that mean Trump will provide Boris a special place at America’s side? This remains to be seen.
The U.S. has moved on from the George Bush-Tony Blair days of bonhomie and is, under Trump, a country in retreat as far as world affairs ago. So, would they need a ‘junior’ partner? Unlikely, and it must also be noted here that it contrasts with Trump’s ‘go-it-alone’ image. The other factor to note here is President Trump’s sudden about-turns on major policy issues, suggests that Boris will be hard pressed to win concessions from the U.S.
The third major challenge facing the British PM is the question of the UK. The rise in the vote of the SNP – the Scottish National Party (SNP) which won 48 out of 59 constituencies in this election in Scotland – will give renewed rise to calls for another referendum for Scottish independence.
Given SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s recent remarks that Scotland ‘cannot be imprisoned’ in the UK, the already predicted Johnson-Sturgeon face-off is likely to come sooner rather than later. What complicates things further is Scotland is fervently pro-Europe. The UK is in danger of breaking apart and it will take slow and patient diplomacy by the PM to persuade Sturgeon and the SNP to step back from the brink.
Coming to the question of India, there is little area of convergence. Though Boris Johnson’s partner gladdened Indian hearts by wearing a sari on the campaign trail, this was to woo the British-Indian electorate, many of whom had taken a very political stance in this election, due to Corbyn’s views on Jammu and Kashmir. For India and the UK there is little of substance with which to work with at the moment. India’s interests are focussed on South Asia and the neighbourhood, in West Asia where it has oil interests, and the Indian Ocean. Boris’s interest is in Europe and the U.S. along with providing a ‘healing touch’ at home, especially with regard to the British Muslim community. This leaves a big India outreach unlikely.
The areas of concern for India are independent of Boris and the UK election. New Delhi will have noted with concern the rise of Sikh extremists propagating the Khalistan movement and their increased bid to work together with Pakistani-backed separatist groups in the UK, especially in areas which house large segments of the Indian and Pakistani diaspora.
India should also be prepared for a repeat of what happened in the 1990s where large segments of the British media and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International brought out an anti-India campaign on Kashmir. This remains India’s big concern and the country will require a counter-campaign to battle these challenges. This will have to be done regardless of whoever is in office in the UK. So, despite the congratulations and handshakes, PMs Modi and Boris Johnson will be well aware that the real work lies elsewhere.