Path to a softer Brexit? UK PM’s big win gives him leeway
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Analysis

Path to a softer Brexit? UK PM’s big win gives him leeway

Boris Johnson’s election victory is just the beginning, as he must now decide how much to preserve of the trade relationship with the EU

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson is greeted by staff as he arrives back at 10 Downing Street in central London on December 13, 2019, following an audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, where she invited him to become prime minister and form a new government. (Stefan Rousseau/POOL/AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson is greeted by staff as he arrives back at 10 Downing Street in central London on December 13, 2019, following an audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, where she invited him to become prime minister and form a new government. (Stefan Rousseau/POOL/AFP)

LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — The scale of the Conservative victory in Britain’s election makes Britain’s exit from the European Union all but inevitable but could lead to a softer split, analysts said on Friday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party secured its biggest majority in parliament since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in Thursday’s election.

The outcome should allow Johnson — a figurehead of the original 2016 EU membership referendum — to push his divorce deal with Brussels through parliament and take Britain out of the bloc on January 31.

But he still has to negotiate a new economic partnership with the European Union, which remains Britain’s biggest trading partner, for businesses to continue operating smoothly on both sides of the Channel.

Failure to do so by the end of 2020 would push Britain into uncharted waters and have unknown repercussions for global markets and international trade.

Before the election, Johnson had to rely on hardline euroskeptic Conservative MPs in the European Research Group (ERG), who have been pressing him for a much looser trading relationship with Brussels.

Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative paPty leader Boris Johnson speaks during a general election campaign rally in East London on December 11, 2019, the final day of campaigning for the general election (Ben Stansall/AFP)

“With a big majority, Boris Johnson can ignore ERG and go for a softer Brexit if he wishes,” noted Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank.

Despite Brexit dominating the election, there has been little scrutiny of Johnson’s exit deal, which covers separation issues such as expatriate rights and Britain’s financial settlement.

There has been even less discussion about the pros and cons of any future trade agreements, while Johnson himself has given mixed signals about what he wants to achieve.

“Johnson will have to decide whether to remain closely aligned with the EU or diverge sharply,” said Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eurasia Group.

“Crucially, Johnson will not be beholden to the 20 hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group.”

Pro-Brexiteers hold a banner near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London on October 17, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

New voter base

Johnson had promised a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU — which would bring greater freedom from EU rules but more barriers and costs to trade.

But campaigning at a factory in northeast England this week, he sought to reassure workers.

He said his plan “protects supply chains, it means we leave the EU with our relationships absolutely intact, so that we have a zero-tariff, zero-quota relationship with the EU.”

Tony Travers, a policy expert at the London School of Economics, said the Conservatives’ success in manufacturing areas could force Johnson’s hand.

The Tories took a swath of seats from the main opposition Labour Party in its usual industrial strongholds, making Johnson’s future political success dependent on protecting blue-collar jobs.

The seats won by Johnson’s party “still have a large amount of manufacturing, production industries, some agriculture in them — areas which if there was a hard Brexit, a no-deal Brexit, would be hard hit,” Travers told AFP.

“It makes it more difficult for Boris Johnson now to deliver anything other than a softer Brexit,” he said.

Demonstrators hold placards and EU and Union flags as they take part in a march by the People’s Vote organisation in central London on October 19, 2019, calling for a final say in a second referendum on Brexit (Niklas Halle’n/AFP)

Whatever the deal, Johnson insisted he would get it done within a post-Brexit transition period scheduled to end on December 31, 2020 — a challenging time-frame.

If he refuses to extend this period, independent experts suggest a limited trade deal is likely.

The prime minister meanwhile has repeatedly touted the prospect of a trade deal with the United States as one of the opportunities of Brexit.

A decisive win “increases the chance of a speedyish free trade agreement with the US, allows him to make the concessions asked of him by the US, even if it upsets a fair few MPs,” said the CER’s Sam Lowe.

“Equally, it also buys him space to put it on the back burner for a while if he wants to.”

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