What’s in store for British politics following the election result
Originally written: 19/12/19
After a five-week campaign with politics and politicians taking up every nook and cranny they can squeeze themselves into on your television, radio or smartphone, polling day gave us all a respite. Broadcasters in the UK are barred from reporting on campaigning details during polling day. From just after midnight until the polls closed at 10 PM, we had a welcome break from politics.
But that brief reprieve was only very brief.
The first real indication of what result the election may have brought was the exit poll. On the strike of 10 PM, as polling stations closed around the country, the exit poll revealed a surprising Tory majority.
It wasn’t close either.
Predictions have the Tories winning around 360 seats. Labour slumped to below 200.
Boris Johnson has been returned to 10 Downing Street with a strong majority
So, what happens now?
The issue which dominated and defined this elections was Brexit. The Tories won with their simple message of ‘Get Brexit done’. Labour floundered with their renegotiate, referendum, remain position, while voters saw the Liberal Democrat’s position of revoke as undemocratic.
Mr Johnson now has the majority he needs to deliver his version of Brexit. This has already passed the last Parliament, but the withdrawal agreement, similar to Theresa May’s apart from the fact that there will be a customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, will be fast-tracked through the House of Commons.
Legislation that will take the UK out of the EU will be submitted to the House this week for its second reading. This process will be a lot smoother than the previous editions. First, John Bercow, willing to let backbenchers and the opposition control the business of the House, is no longer Speaker and even if he was, the government has enough MPs to control the House’s timetable.
Mr Johnson will want to deliver on his promise of Brexit by January 31. There will then be a year’s worth of negotiating during the transition period, before the UK formally leaves the trading bloc and Brexit is done.
As the UK comes out of one union, another could be under threat. The Act of Union was signed in 1707, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland. After over three centuries it could be close to its end.
When Hadrian set the northern limits of the Roman Empire, he chose a boundary close near to what would become the border between Scotland and England. England was then very much part of a wider Europe; Scotland was locked out. Into the Middle Ages, though, Scotland would appeal to the continent, the Auld alliance with France, to secure its independence from its more powerful and prosperous southern neighbour.
Scotland being locked out of the EU was one of the major reasons to preserve the union during the 2015 independence referendum. But now with the UK set to finally leave the EU, Scottish nationalists are once again using the ability to keep close ties with Europe as a major argument for independence.
The Scottish National Party won 48 of 59 seats in Scotland. With the strong support for the European Union in the northern kingdom (62% supported remaining in the EU at the 2016 referendum) there will be another push for an independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader, has also been focusing on the Conservative’s policies and the damage they could do to Scotland.
Another referendum has been rejected by Mr Johnson, but it is a battle that will continue and intensify over the coming weeks and months. How the government deals with the push for another vote will be a major theme of this parliament. One thing is certain though; Mr Johnson does not want the union to dissolve under his leadership. With opinion polls in Scotland balanced on a knife edge between independence and keeping the union, however, it is something that may be beyond his control.
A new majority will allow Mr Johnson to shape his cabinet in his image more so than he was capable of in the last parliament. There are already a few positions he has to fill. Nicky Morgan stepped down as an MP, vacating her role as culture secretary. Alun Cairns will also have to be replaced as Welsh secretary and Zac Goldsmith, who lost his seat in Richmond Park, has left the role of environment secretary empty. These positions will be filled in the coming days before a larger reshuffle takes place in February.
So far, only Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, has been assured of his position. Five members of the cabinet have already been identified as under risk of losing their positions. These include Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, Liz Truss, who runs the international trade department, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, and Julian Smith, Northern Ireland secretary.
Several departments could also be folded into other ones. The Department for Exiting the EU could become part of the Department for Trade while the Department for International Development could be subsumed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
One person being touted for a return to the Cabinet is Penny Mordaunt. She was fired from her position as defence secretary when Boris Johnson became prime minister. But now her loyalty from the backbenches could be rewarded with a return to the big table. Michael Gove is also set to get a bigger role.
Finally, a budget is expected in February to help deliver on the non-Brexit related campaign promises of the Conservatives. The NHS is set to receive increased funding, to the tune of £34bn, while cuts in the number of police officers are set to be reversed. Austerity meant an axing of 20,000 officers but the new budget may start a recruitment drive to bring those 20,000 back. A pledge to retain and recruit 50,000 nurses will also have to be funded.
A tax cut, by raising the threshold at which people start paying National Insurance, was also a key pledge of Mr Johnson on the campaign trial. The February budget is also predicted to include that. Social care will be funded by an additional £1bn and education investment is set to increase with Mr Johnson having promised to increase the minimum funding per pupil.
MPs return to Westminster on Monday. They will enter a very different parliament than they left. A Conservative majority, the largest since the 80s, will mean that Boris Johnson has a lot more room to manoeuvre. Now, it is up to him to deliver on his election promises.