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The long shadow of Brexit

  • Published at 06:00 pm November 25th, 2019
A handout picture taken and released by the BBC on November 22, 2019, shows Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn participating on the BBC's Question Time 'Leaders Special' television show, from Sheffield, northern England, that is set to feature the leaders of Britain's four main political parties AFP

Brexit is all but a certainty -- but what about the future of the UK?

Currently, as campaigns are in full swing for the election of the House of Commons in the UK, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is in a comfortable lead in the opinion polls -- way ahead of archrival  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Although, only a clear win will enable Boris to carry out Brexit in his own way as there are always few rebels in all the major parties in the UK.

Brexit has been all over UK politics ever since the then British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum on the matter back in early 2016. The demand for such a vote had been making rounds for several years before that, especially by the euro-skeptics within the Conservative Party and other, smaller, anti-immigration and right wing groups.

Cameron, by heart, wasn’t really a core “brexiteer” and had thought of managing the results of the Brexit referendum based on the deal for the UK he extracted from the EU and the ultimate prudence of the UK electorate, regardless of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe vibes in his country.

Experts also predicted that “remain” would win against “leave” in spite of the fact that the latter got some boost by having Tory leaders like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove lead the campaign. But it all went wrong in the June 2016 referendum and a stunned Cameron quit 10 Downing Street.

Theresa May took over to lead the Brexit endeavour as Boris faltered in garnering Tory MPs support. But she was rather confused from the beginning on how to go about carrying out Brexit and found it difficult to choose between the all-party approach or the one of her own of Tory mould.

She sought another mandate with her “hard Brexit” plan in 2017 but lost the majority despite becoming the single largest party. 

Irrespective of his commanding 10 points lead over Labour, Boris is under pressure from Nigel Farage’s even more conservative Brexit Party. They will take away a sizable chunk of his vote if he shows a compromising face in the election campaign instead of a belligerent one. Labour is enjoying the support of about 32% of the electorate. It appears that Labour’s relative ascent under Corbyn against Theresa May in the 2017 election will be dashed by the Tories under the controversial yet charismatic Boris Johnson. 

For Labour, an ideal situation would have been an alliance with the 3rd party -- the centrist Liberal Democrats -- which has seen some rise in their popularity in the range of 15-16% under their new leader: The young scot Jo Swinson.

But Lib Dems have suffered heavily for allying with major parties in the past and they would be careful in doing the same this time around.

The UK has been in a limbo with regards to Brexit for four long years now. The EU can’t afford to show them much generosity in a Brexit deal for two key reasons: One is that they don’t want to encourage others to leave the union by giving UK a very good deal at its own cost, the other being that there are some principles involved.

Britain wants access to the European market without free movement of labour and common customs union.

This is simply contradictory. There is no reason for the EU to concede to such demands. Then there is this third important issue of free movement of people and goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as per the Good Friday Agreement.

No one wants to spoil that.

May worked out the Irish Backstop arrangement with the EU. Interestingly, despite harder talks than May, Boris conceded Northern Ireland to EU common customs union, accepting a customs boundary between Britain and Northern Ireland which the DUP, and other pro-unionist entities in Belfast, despise. 

Boris is also taking another great risk which is the prospect of losing Scotland from the UK. The Scottish Nationalist Party is demanding another Scottish independence vote on the grounds that Scotland voted against Brexit and the Tory party wants to bend its wish in line with England.

However, some hardcore brexiteers from the English countryside and small towns seem to be fine with termination of the 400-year-old England-Scotland union.

Most neutral experts foresee misery for the UK after Brexit. Even after Brexit, there will be long tenacious negotiations to work out the lengthy details of trade, financial matters, law, movement, connectivity, and many other factors. Three weeks is some time for some change in the election results. Corbyn put up an impressive show against Boris in the American-style debate of two prime ministerial candidates.

Corbyn’s policies on Brexit is a bit confusing. Initially, he wanted a soft, negotiated Brexit. Now he wishes for another Brexit referendum where his position will be neutral.

Lib Dems are assertively against Brexit altogether. If Boris wins clearly, Brexit is a certainty -- but maybe the same cannot be said of the UK’s future.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.

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