An earlier version of this column said European nations will need to secure the rights of the nationals working in the U.K., but the current Brexit negotiations already include protections for such foreign nationals. The text has been updated.
Let’s start with Brexit. The nearly four-year debate that has consumed Britain is nearing its conclusion. Parliament will convene shortly and begin the legal process to approve Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. By Jan. 31, 2020, Britain will be out of the European Union.
Britain will then be free to strike free trade deals with other nations without E.U. approval. Expect Johnson to be a man on the move as he signs deals with Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada as quickly as he can. He’ll also be eager to strike a deal with the United States, in part because even a partial deal that defers some hard questions until later gives him bargaining power with the E.U. It is in President Trump’s interests to do that, and I expect at least a preliminary deal to be signed by summer.
The tricky negotiations with the E.U. itself over future trading arrangements should also go easier than many expect. Germany’s economy is slowing noticeably, and French President Emmanuel Macron would like to end the Brexit distraction so he can move forward with his broader project for greater European integration. A final arrangement might come in steps rather than all at once, but neither side wants the sudden disruption that would come from an overnight reversion to World Trade Organization rules. Johnson’s critics will charge that he’s broken his promise to get the U.K. fully out of the E.U. if the final deal takes longer than a year to negotiate, but those charges won’t stick so long as he’s clearly making real progress.
That’s when the real and exciting work begins. The Conservative manifesto promises a degree of government action not seen here in more than a decade. Low-skilled immigration will be restricted, which could raise wages and increase job opportunities for the blue-collar former Labour voters who gave Johnson his victory. Public investment in infrastructure and education will be shifted from the prosperous south to the downtrodden north. Payroll taxes will be cut immediately, and British voters can expect more tax cuts for low-wage workers in future budgets. It won’t happen overnight, but by the end of this Parliament’s five-year term, things should be looking up for many of the old industrial towns whose voters the Conservatives now depend upon to stay in office.
None of this will imperil Britain’s growing status as a global nation that is home to millions of immigrants. Johnson has been criticized for allegedly Islamophobic comments in the past, but he is inherently a socially liberal man. He is as comfortable in a Hindu temple as he is on a rugby pitch. His chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, is of Pakistani descent, while his home secretary, Priti Patel, is of Indian descent. His successful tenure as London’s mayor also makes him uniquely appreciative of modern Britain’s international status and population. Johnson’s goal will be to spread Britain’s influence further into the world, not to raise the drawbridge and turn inward.
His biggest challenge will be to maintain the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s voters gave the independence-minded Scottish National Party 48 of the region’s 59 seats on Thursday. While polls still show Scottish voters are opposed to independence, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon intends to press for a second independence referendum during Johnson’s tenure. He will need to include Scotland in his investment plans as much as the northern towns who voted for his party if he wants to keep the Union.
Northern Ireland will be trickier task. Unionists already oppose Johnson’s withdrawal agreement because they believe it envisions a future customs barrier in the Irish Sea between it and the remainder of Britain. Catholics overwhelmingly vote for parties that seek unification with the rest of Ireland, and current demographic trends show they will be a majority of the Northern Irish population within a decade. Northern Ireland’s republicans won’t push to leave the U.K. and join Ireland anytime soon. But Johnson will need to work hard to build continued support for the Union if he wants to forestall a referendum in the near future.
These developments should be good news for American foreign policy. A strong, confident Britain will help build support for democracy and capitalism in ways that the United States, as the global superpower, cannot. It will also cleave even closer to the United States in security matters as a tighter Anglo-American alliance helps both nations combat their largely common threats. Johnson’s personal connection to the United States — he was born in Manhattan — will also help cement ties.
Johnson’s campaign slogan said he would get Brexit done, unify the country and unleash Britain’s potential. My bet is he does exactly that.