Breakingviews - Johnson’s big win unlocks Brexit black box

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a final general election campaign event in London, Britain, December 11, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain will soon know what Boris Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” actually means. The UK Conservative Party secured a large parliamentary majority in Thursday’s general election. That will allow Britain to quit the European Union three and a half years after voters narrowly opted to leave. The prime minister’s policy ambitions, however, remain a black box.

The result is an overwhelming vindication of Johnson’s decision to campaign on a single repetitive promise. His government’s hefty majority will ensure Britain leaves the EU at the end of January. It should also make it easier for Johnson to secure a trade deal with the remaining 27 countries by the end of 2020, a tight deadline he says he will not extend. That’s because Johnson will no longer be captive to the eurosceptics in his party, who dream of turning Britain into a lightly-regulated capitalist nirvana. If the prime minister opts for a closer alignment with the EU, it will be hard to stop him.

Markets reflect the hope that Johnson will have the authority to push through a softer version of Brexit. The pound was up almost 2% against the U.S dollar. Soaring stocks will deliver a short-term feel-good factor. Foreign investors who fretted about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left agenda will decide that their money is once again secure in Britain.

Yet what Johnson plans to do with post-Brexit Britain is a mystery. His decision to campaign to leave was famously motivated by personal ambition. His election campaign was largely free of policy ideas, beyond vague promises to hire more nurses and police, and a pledge to prop up ailing companies.

He will also face high expectations, particularly among former Labour voters in the north of England. Leaving the EU will still inflict long-term economic damage and any blame will fall squarely on Johnson and his government. Meanwhile, a strong election performance by the Scottish Nationalist Party will revive pressure for a new independence referendum north of the border. Johnson will get Brexit done. It’s still not clear that voters will be glad he did.

(This article has been updated with election results.)


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