Brexit Is Put to Bed: A Look at What Follows the UK Election

Georg Vanberg assesses the surprisingly large victory for the Conservative Party

Boris Johnson's large victory gives him a secure place at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the prime minister.
Boris Johnson's large victory gives him a secure place at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the prime minister.

After two tight elections and three years of no national consensus on Brexit, a resounding electoral victory for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party now makes clear the way forward for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

Professor Georg Vanberg, chair of political science and a leading scholar of international comparative political systems, says there is relief across Britain and even Europe that the Brexit drama appears to be over. But in an interview with Duke Today, he also sees some nuances that suggest some of the responses to the results may not be as clear as they first appear.

Georg Vanberg Q: Boris Johnson effectively campaigned on a simple platform of “Get Brexit Done.” Does this mean there’s now a national consensus on Brexit?

VANBERG: I think this is a nuanced issue (as is interpreting any election result!), and we’d want to distinguish a few issues. First is the electoral system: Because the United Kingdom (UK) employs (like we do, for most elections), a first-past-the-post single-member district system, small changes at the district level that are systematic across districts can have a highly amplified result on the aggregate seat distribution. So while this was clearly a significant shift toward the Conservatives and away from Labour, one shouldn’t over interpret it.

The second thing to keep in mind is that elections are choices among bundles — and while Brexit clearly loomed over this election, there were also issues that muddled those waters and made this more than a straight-up referendum on Brexit. Most obviously, there was the issue of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was deeply unpopular and probably hurt Labour significantly. And of course on Brexit itself, Labour did not provide a clear stance, but instead promised to put the decision off for another referendum — something that was unappealing for a lot of voters who are tired of three years of uncertainty.

I think putting all of those things together, this was a situation that was ready made for a Conservative victory not because there is overwhelming enthusiasm for all the Tories (and Johnson) stand for, but because there was no clear, halfway appealing alternative. I don’t think this marks a huge shift in public attitudes toward Brexit, which I suspect remain as contentious as ever. But I do think this puts the issue to bed — there will now be a swift exit from the European Union (EU), and I don’t think it will continue to be much of an object of discussion in the UK, given the overwhelming Tory majority.


Q: What do you think the reaction in European capitals is going to be? What is their next step?

VANBERG: I think the most important impact is going to be that Johnson now has reliable backing in the House of Commons, so he will be able to ratify the withdrawal agreement quickly and without having to rely on support parties. Once that is done, the UK will be in a much stronger bargaining position with respect to the trade agreement that needs to be worked out with the EU. My guess is that on the EU side, there is a mixture of relief (that the uncertainty is removed, and there is now clarity), but also a sober realization that Brexit is now a done deal, and that the UK is in a stronger bargaining position than one might have thought.


Q: And what’s next for Scotland and Northen Ireland? Was this the last ever United Kingdom election?

VANBERG: I do not think this is the last UK election. There will, of course, be tremendous pressure on the Scottish government to go forward with a referendum (which Johnson has said he will not allow).  But the issue of Scottish independence is very tricky for the EU. If the EU is seen to encourage a referendum, or if there is any hint that Scotland might be permitted to join the EU, this would raise huge alarm bells in other European countries, and I would be surprised if those countries would allow any prospect of this.

Put differently, even if Scotland wanted to leave, and even if the Scots had the opportunity to take that vote, it seems highly unlikely to me that they would have an easy path into the EU.


Q: Where does this leave the Labour Party? Within the context of European politics, are you seeing their decline in England matched elsewhere?

VANBERG: The Labour Party had two strikes against it here: First, a deeply unpopular leader with a program that was perceived as too leftist even by many of the parties’ traditional supporters. And second, the issue of Brexit cut across the traditional political alignments in a way that put Labour in a very difficult position, which they were ultimately not able to square with their non-committal Brexit strategy.

I think there are some elements here that are important and that were particular to the UK and to this election. That said, we have seen other parties of the center-left in deep difficulties — most prominently, the SPD in Germany, which is caught between a far more radical left-wing, and a centrist Christian-democratic party that has made the SPD’s traditional political niche much more difficult to occupy.


Q: Finally, is there any message or lesson coming out of this election that forecasts how the U.S. 2020 election might play out?

VANBERG: I think this is a hard question. Brexit was the elephant in the room, and while we have our own elephants, they are unlikely to have the same effects. Most obviously, Brexit cut across traditional party lines in ways that allowed the Tories to “flip” traditional Labour seats, while in our case there is increasing polarization between parties and a decline of issues that cut across them.

That said — and I hesitate to say this, given that it is a contentious issue in our own political system — I think there may be some lessons here for Democrats in thinking about dimensions that further undermined Labour’s competitiveness: sticking with a deeply unpopular leader, and adopting a policy program that appeared too radical for many supporters. Clearly, Labour was facing a headwind. but they also did not help themselves.