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Boris Wins Big

Britain's Conservatives won a commanding majority and a mandate to push through the prime minister's Brexit deal—but other problems lie ahead for Johnson, starting with Scotland.

By Audrey Wilson, an associate editor at Foreign Policy, and Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds enter Downing Street as the Conservatives celebrate a sweeping election victory on Dec. 13.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds enter Downing Street as the Conservatives celebrate a sweeping election victory on Dec. 13. Peter Summers/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Boris Johnson’s Conservatives win a commanding majority in Britain’s general election, the United States and China reach a tentative agreement ahead of a major tariff deadline, and climate negotiators conclude the U.N. COP25 conference in Madrid amid deadlock over key issues.

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Britain’s Conservatives Set for Big Majority

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party has won a large majority in the House of Commons, taking 364 seats out of 650 with only one constituency remaining to declare its results—a gain of nearly 50 seats since 2017 and the party’s biggest majority since the era of Margaret Thatcher. The Labour Party won just 203 seats, losing nearly 60 since its strong showing two years ago.

The snap election was called to end the political deadlock over Brexit and it appears that Johnson’s election bet paid off: the results give him the major victory needed to push his Brexit deal through Parliament. But it’s not necessarily smooth sailing ahead for the United Kingdom after Johnson fulfills his pledge to “get Brexit done.”

Scotland and Westminster are on a collision course. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party won 48 out of 59 seats, taking seven of the 13 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has vowed to hold a second independence vote if Johnson seeks to drag Scotland out of the EU against its will. “Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the EU but he must accept that I have a mandate to give Scotland a choice for an alternative future,” Sturgeon declared after the results came in. Johnson has indicated he won’t allow a second independence referendum, which could provoke a crisis for the union.

What went wrong for Labour? Labour has historically performed well in the old industrial and mining towns of northern England, the Midlands, and parts of Wales. On Thursday, Corbyn’s party was trounced as Tories broke through Labour’s so-called red wall in constituencies that in most cases voted heavily in 2016 to leave the EU. Tories won in long-held Labour seats such as Bishop Auckland, Bolsover, Redcar, and Workington—transforming the map of British politics and overturning longstanding pockets of reliable Labour support. In Burnley, it was the first Tory win in over a century.

Will Corbyn step down? The opposition Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, had campaigned on a more radical platform and a pledge to support a second referendum on Brexit. That is now off the table, and Corbyn has vowed not to lead the party in the next election campaign, though he has not yet formally resigned as leader. The simmering civil war between moderates and far-left Corbyn supporters has burst into the open with shouting and recriminations hurled on morning TV shows and in newspaper columns, blaming Corbyn for the party’s disastrous showing. The Guardian has already profiled his potential successors.

Is the Irish border problem solved? For the past two years, the Irish border has been a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations, largely because Theresa May’s government relied on the votes of 10 Democratic Unionist Party members of Parliament to maintain its narrow majority.  Although the Northern Irish party was initially supportive of Johnson, the DUP was unhappy with Johnson’s renegotiated Brexit deal, seeing it as a threat because it will lead to customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain in order to avoid them on the North’s border with the Republic of Ireland. On Thursday, the DUP lost two of its 10 seats. With a commanding majority in Parliament, Johnson no longer needs the DUP and can afford to ignore its demands.

What happened to the Liberal Democrats? Over the past year, as anti-Brexit MPs defected from the Conservatives and anti-Corbyn MPs left Labour, the centrist pro-EU Liberal Democrats appeared poised to gain. The party had a disappointing election night, winning a few seats near London and other progressive enclaves but losing elsewhere, including the seat of party leader Jo Swinson who lost by 149 votes to the SNP, prompting her to resign. The failure of pro-EU candidates to build alliances through tactical voting is one reason for the party’s failure. In several seats, including Foreign Minister Dominic Raab’s, Lib Dem candidates could have won if there had been no Labour challenger; likewise, in some close races, like London’s Chingford and Woodford Green, Tories triumphed because Lib Dems deprived Labour of a few thousand key votes.

What does this mean for Brexit? The deadline for Britain to leave the European Union was extended to Jan. 31 before the election. With a large Conservative majority, Johnson will be able to pass his deal and then enter a transition period to renegotiate Britain’s relationship, including striking a trade agreement with the European Union—something Johnson has promised to do by the end of 2020. This will not be as easy as it sounds, argues Anand Menon in FP.

What We’re Following Today

Have the U.S. and China reached a trade deal? A new round of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods is set to take effect Sunday, but U.S. and Chinese negotiators have tentatively agreed to a phase-one trade deal—pending approval from U.S. President Donald Trump. The text has not been finalized, but the deal would delay the Dec. 15 deadline and cut some tariffs on Chinese goods. In turn, China has pledged to buy more U.S. agricultural products. The tariffs scheduled for Sunday would include products with few substitutes beyond Chinese imports, ranging from toys to electronics.

U.N. climate conference concludes. The U.N. COP25 conference on climate change is set to conclude today in Madrid, with negotiators still wrangling over key issues. Negotiators have disagreed over rules for carbon markets in particular, with critics saying loopholes in the 2015 Paris agreement could allow major greenhouse gas emitters to claim carbon reductions that they haven’t made. That would come at the expense of island countries susceptible to sea level rise. Some countries “are losing sight of the bigger picture as if there is no climate emergency,” Simon Stiell, the environment minister of Grenada, said on Thursday.

U.S. Senate recognizes Armenian genocide. Joining the House, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday that recognizes as genocide the mass killing of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 in the territory that is now Turkey. The Trump administration previously tried to block  the move, which could strain relations with Ankara. Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House last month, as U.S. lawmakers have pushed for sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of a Russian missile system and its incursion into northern Syria.

Keep an Eye On

Evo Morales in Argentina. Bolivian President Evo Morales has arrived in neighboring Argentina, where he has been granted asylum after being ousted a month ago following an allegedly rigged election. The move, which comes as the left-wing President Alberto Fernández takes office in Argentina, is likely to upset the far-right Bolsonaro administration in Brazil.

Cambodia’s prime minister. Currently Asia’s longest-serving ruler, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has since 2017 dissolved the country’s opposition party, silenced the press, and pivoted toward China. He does so by emphasizing the “rule of law”—shrouding his authoritarianism in democratic legitimacy, Charles Dunst argues in FP.

Italy’s fragile coalition. Three Italian senators left the ruling Five Star Movement on Thursday to join Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, cutting the government’s already slim majority to just five seats. The Five Star Movement has seen its support fall off in recent months, as Salvini hopes to trigger a snap election.

Odds and Ends

On Wednesday a Russian TV station began showing Servant of the People, the sitcom starring Ukraine’s now-president, Volodymyr Zelensky. (In the show, the actor-turned-politician plays a teacher who becomes president.) But it’s already been taken off the air: Viewers noticed that a joke about Russian President Vladimir Putin was censored in the first episode.

The former leader of the U.K. Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, made a risky vow before Thursday’s election: She promised to skinny dip in frigid Loch Ness, famed for its supposed monster, if the Scottish National Party won more than 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats. “I will happily wager to strip naked on the banks of Loch Ness and subject myself to a Hogmanay wild swimming session should such a result occur, safe in the knowledge that my modesty (and others’ eyeballs) will remain unmolested,” she said. Davidson’s party, which had enjoyed a revival in Scotland before her resignation due to her differences with Boris Johnson, lost 7 of its 13 seats—but the SNP ended the night with just 48 seats, allowing her to stay dry.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He is the author of Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy and The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Twitter: @sasha_p_s