Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” has found unexpectedly wide resonance with the people of Great Britain. With 364 seats out of 650 in the House of Commons, the election marks the largest victory for the Tories in recent memory. That the Conservatives were able to breach traditional bastions of the Labour Party, including in North England, and erode its working class base, signals the entrenching of the disenchantment with globalisation and European integration. In 2016, when Britain chose to exit the EU after a referendum, it marked the beginning of the West’s retreat from the global order it had set up, and the liberal values that shored it up. Nearly four years later, even as the complexities and costs of Brexit have become apparent, the British people have chosen to overwhelmingly back it once again. For the UK, in the short term, the verdict holds an answer on how to proceed on a vexed question. But it has also raised more fundamental and complex concerns on the relationship between democracy, liberal values and populism.
This election was, first and foremost, an attempt by Johnson to secure legitimacy for a hurried Brexit deal — Parliament had insisted on a more considered approach. The Conservative PM can now ensure that the deal is pushed through by the January 31 deadline. For Jeremy Corbyn, who has pushed Labour more to the Left, this is the third consecutive electoral defeat. In the near future, the prospects for both Corbyn and Labour appear dim. But even for PM Johnson, the road ahead will be challenging. He must now rise to the more arduous task of steering Britain through life after Brexit. This will involve negotiating new trading arrangements with the EU — the UK’s largest trading partner — along with rejoining the WTO and unveiling a new strategy for the country’s economic growth. Another problem that will confront the new government comes from within the UK: The anti-Brexit Scottish National Party has won in 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland, and it could push for another referendum on Scottish independence. As new border mechanisms come into play between the UK and Ireland after Brexit, Johnson must pay heed to Irish concerns.
As Britain leaves Europe, India may need to boldly reimagine the bilateral relationship. Delhi needs to look beyond the questions of Pakistan and Kashmir and seize the new opportunities for trade with Britain. As Tories revive the British interest in the Commonwealth, India has an opportunity to restructure this organisation. Britain will now likely try and recover a global role for itself, and reclaim its maritime orientation — on this front, there will be much Delhi could do with London. To succeed, though, Delhi needs to get its own house in order, especially on the economic front. An India that turns on itself at home and retreats into protectionist mode will find it hard to engage the new Britain.