October 26, 2020

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It's showtime for British PM Boris Johnson

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/12/2019 (314 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson persuaded a plurality of English voters that the European Union was the reason they were unhappy. Now that they have given his Conservative party a solid majority in Parliament, he has to persuade them he has solved their problem. U.S. President Donald Trump may have already shown him how to do that.

Mr. Johnson soundly trounced the Labour opposition in the Dec. 12 election, winning 365 of the 650 House of Commons seats with 43.6 per cent of the U.K.-wide vote, compared to 203 seats and 32.2 per cent of the vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Mr. Johnson’s slogan "Get Brexit done" won good support from former Labour voters in Northern and Midland England and in North Wales. Mr. Corbyn’s promise to let others decide later whether Britain should pull out of the European Union made little impression on the public.

Leaders of British industry, who have learned to prosper in the European Union during 46 years of membership in the trading bloc, opposed British withdrawal throughout the years-long debate and warned of economic damage from Brexit. In the forthcoming long and complex negotiations to disentangle Britain from the EU, Mr. Johnson will have to preserve the advantages of British trade with Europe while appearing to sever the existing link.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party won 365 of the 650 House of Commons seats with 43.6 per cent of the U.K.-wide vote. (Lindsey Parnaby / Pool files)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party won 365 of the 650 House of Commons seats with 43.6 per cent of the U.K.-wide vote. (Lindsey Parnaby / Pool files)

Mr. Trump followed a similar course. He persuaded voters in declining rust-belt industrial cities of the U.S. Midwest that the root of their problem was NAFTA, the trade treaty that has tied the U.S. to Canada and Mexico since 1994. Mr. Trump called it the worst trade treaty ever made and promised to rewrite it or cancel it.

In the event, he concluded a new treaty with Canada and Mexico that is almost indistinguishable from NAFTA, named it USMCA and declared it to be vastly better than NAFTA. Abandoned factories still dot the rust-belt cities, but voters in the region appear to believe that Mr. Trump is helping them.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson are both masters of political stagecraft. Mr. Trump honed his skills in reality television, especially his show The Apprentice, in which his character brutally fired people playing his underlings. Mr. Johnson developed a line of anti-Europe advocacy as a writer for British newspapers and as a television commentator.

We should expect to see many highly publicized events that will dramatize Britain’s departure from the European Union — moving trucks loading up the furniture of the British officials in Brussels, high-level meetings in London and Brussels where it will be announced that Brexit has been accomplished.\

Johnson will have to preserve the advantages of British trade with Europe while appearing to sever the existing link. (Frank Augstein / The Associated Press files)

Johnson will have to preserve the advantages of British trade with Europe while appearing to sever the existing link. (Frank Augstein / The Associated Press files)

Meanwhile, manufacturers in Britain and in Europe will continue serving their customers as best they can, which will entail maintaining EU product standards and keeping trade barriers to a minimum. EU programs in the U.K will have to be wound down and the U.K. government will have to provide new services to take their place.

Mr. Johnson may come looking for dramatic gestures with Canada aimed at showing that Britain has plenty of friends and trade partners around the world and doesn’t need its European neighbours. There would be no harm in going through the motions of a free-trade treaty negotiation. But since Canada-U.K. trade is already covered by Canada’s trade treaty with Europe, that exercise will be more symbolic than real. Mr. Johnson’s main task now is to wave his arms convincingly, declare Brexit complete and turn to other things.

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