Brexit is Back? A few takeaways from the recent UK local government and Northern Ireland Assembly elections

The UK local government and Northern Ireland Assembly elections took place on May 5th. Antti Halonen writes about the potential scenarios that might emerge from the results. UK is still a major global power, and it plays a central role in building up support for Ukraine against the Russian aggression. Subsequently, what happens in the British politics in near future will have its effects in the wider European context and should be of interest to companies and organisations who operate in the UK.

Local government elections in the UK serve several purposes.

Firstly, and most importantly, local government is responsible for several vital services for people and businesses: social care, housing, collecting rubbish and so forth.

Secondly, they are seen as a midterm judgement of the government in Westminster.

Thirdly, they are the elections where devolved parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are selected.

Local implications aside, three different points of wider European interest emerge from this election’s results: Brexit is back, Labour needs to rethink its strategy, and Boris Johnson may not be in such a bad mess after all.

Let’s go through these step by step.

1. Brexit is back?

The electorate in Northern Ireland provided the biggest news of the election. Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party once affiliated with militant IRA, became the largest party in the Assembly for the first time in its history. The leading protestant unionist party DUP finished second.

According to the Good Friday Agreement which ended the violent period in Irish history known as the Troubles, the leadership of Northern Ireland must be shared between nationalist and unionist parties. And this brings Brexit back to the political agenda. DUP has refused to join the tandem leadership unless the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which is an incremental part of the Brexit deal between the UK and EU, is scrapped.

The initial approach of the government in Westminster has been supportive of DUP’s demands. Brexit has proved a winning ticket for Boris Johnson so far and it might be tempting for him to unleash new verbal attacks against EU, given the precarious position his premiership is in due to ongoing “partygate” scandal. Another question is whether they dare to bring disruptive Brexit talk back to the European discussion tables, on a moment when newly found European unity is increasingly being hailed amid Russian aggression.

2. Labour: time for change, but change for what?

Labour won control of some of the most prominent Conservative stronghold councils in London but failed to make significant gains in northern England. This area is dubbed as “Red Wall” due to its traditionally strong Labour support.

The next General Election will take place probably in 2024. Despite all the problems and scandals that have hit the current Conservative government and its front bench, Labour is all but certain to make significant gains in the next election. Camilla Cavendish, former No 10 policy director, argued in Financial Times (FT 7.5.) that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has still lots to do to clarify his party’s message. Under Starmer, Labour has distanced itself from the previous leader Jeremy Corbyn and his radical left policies, but what the party really stands for under Starmer remains somewhat ambiguous. In 2024 the Conservative government will have been in power for 14 years, already longer than Labour was in power under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Labour will surely promise the British public a change, but a change for what?

3. Lifeline for Boris?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone from scandal to scandal during his political career, but none so far has seem as damaging as the ongoing “partygate” scandal.

These elections were widely seen as a decisive point for Conservative MP’s whether to start serious progress to oust Johnson: “take a beating at the election and you’re gone”. Conservatives did witness some very heavy losses, especially in London where they lost some of their strongest areas such as Westminster Council and Wandsworth. Also, in southern and western England Liberal Democrats made strong gains in some areas which have traditionally voted Conservative. However, the result may not be as damaging to Johnson as it might look like.

Firstly, Conservative governments tend to face thrashing in elections that take place in midterm. For example, in 2012, with David Cameron as Prime Minister of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, Labour took an even bigger win in local elections yet failed to threaten Conservatives in the following General Elections. Also, Liberal Democrats usually do much better in local elections than in General Elections and it is far from certain that those southern England “Blue Wall” areas will vote for Lib Dem in the upcoming General Election.

Secondly, local government has never been that important to Conservatives anyway. Conservative Prime Ministers from Thatcher to Cameron have made significant cuts to local authorities’ funding and have supported private sector and third sector actors to take a bigger role in providing local services.

Thirdly, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks likely to end up in a similar mess with the police as Boris Johnson currently is. There is an ongoing police investigation on Starmer’s activities during Covid pandemic when all social gatherings were banned. Accusing Johnson of Covid breaches makes Starmer look like a hypocrite if he will be found guilty as well. However, Starmer has already pledged to resign if he is given a fixed penalty notice by the police.

All in all, the European context has changed profoundly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Europe needs a strong and committed UK. So far, the UK and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have not only offered strong support for Ukrainians, but also been the most vocal supporter of Finland and Sweden in case of Russian retaliation after Nordic countries submit their NATO applications. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demonstrated that the UK is still a major actor in global and European politics despite their exit from the EU.

Companies operating in the UK and Europe should still be prepared for potential changes in the rhetoric of the UK regarding Brexit. Should the Northern Ireland protocol be ripped apart, expect prolonged debates and possible disruptions in Europe-UK trade. Any signs of eroding unity in the face of Russian aggression due to newly opened Brexit discussions would be counterproductive.

Miltton continues to monitor the development of geopolitical changes in Europe and provides its clients with insight on how the new context of international politics affect different areas of business.

Antti Halonen is a consultant at Miltton. He has commented on British politics and history in various Finnish media, such as Yleisradio, Helsingin Sanomat and Kanava.

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Antti Halonen