British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has outlined a “radical” agenda for his newly elected government but he’s already facing fresh challenges over Brexit and Scottish independence.
Mr. Johnson offered a long list of plans in a Queen’s Speech delivered on Thursday at the official opening of Parliament. It included proposals to substantially increase spending on health care and education as well as plans to overhaul the legal system and hire 20,000 police officers.
“We have no time to waste, and we begin immediately with the most radical Queen’s Speech in a generation,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement.
Much of the focus was also on Brexit and the Prime Minister’s determination to win quick parliamentary approval for a withdrawal agreement he reached with the European Union in October. Legislation implementing the deal will be introduced on Friday and once it has been passed, Britain will leave the EU on Jan. 31. There will be a transition period until the end of 2020, during which Britain and the EU are supposed to negotiate a trade deal. The transition can be extended by up to two years, but Mr. Johnson said this week that the legislation will include a provision that prevents such an extension.
That surprised some experts who expected Mr. Johnson to leave open the possibility of an extension given that he has been pushing for a comprehensive trade deal. The best he will likely get now is a limited agreement that covers trade in goods but not financial services, fisheries or other key sectors of the economy.
“Eleven months is incredibly short for negotiations of any form of a trade agreement,” Catherine Barnard, a professor of EU law at Cambridge University, told a briefing of foreign journalists. “I think what you can expect to see by the end of the year is a very thin trade deal.” She added both sides will likely engage in a lengthy program of “rolling negotiations” on larger issues, including services, transportation and security.
Mr. Johnson will have to make tough decisions about how far Britain will go in adhering to EU regulations in order to maintain market access, Prof. Barnard said. The EU will also have to be careful, she added, because any concessions it gives to Britain could force the bloc to offer the same treatment to Canada and other countries that have EU trade deals.
Mr. Johnson’s firm refusal to extend the transition has also spooked investors who have driven down the value of sterling, which had jumped sharply after last week’s election.
Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London, said Brexit uncertainty will overhang the economy for years. Even with a trade deal, Prof. Portes said, Brexit will reduce the growth of the British economy by half a per cent annually for the next decade. “We are, in economic terms, one way or another headed for a pretty hard Brexit,” he said.
Thursday’s Queen’s Speech also came as Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, laid out a detailed request for Westminster to give the Scottish Parliament the power to call a referendum on independence in 2020. Currently, the British government must agree to a referendum, and Mr. Johnson has refused, arguing the issue was settled by Scots in 2014 when 55 per cent of voters supported remaining in the United Kingdom.
Ms. Sturgeon, who heads the Scottish National Party, has said that Scotland deserves another vote because of Brexit, which a majority of Scots did not support. On Thursday, she published a draft law that would allow the Scottish Parliament to call a referendum. “Of course, I anticipate that in the short term we will simply hear a restatement of the U.K. government’s opposition,” she said. “But they should be under no illusion that this will be an end of the matter. We will continue to pursue the democratic case for Scotland’s right to choose.”
Ms. Sturgeon has ruled out calling an indicative referendum and following the example of the legislature in Catalonia, which held a poll on independence in 2017 in defiance of the Spanish government. “We acknowledge that a referendum must be legal and that it must be accepted as legitimate, here in Scotland and the rest of the U.K., as well as in the EU and the wider international community,” she said.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London, said Mr. Johnson may not be able to resist calls for a referendum if Brexit goes badly and the SNP win a large majority in elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2021. “The momentum behind the holding of a referendum may become unstoppable even for Boris Johnson,” he said. Mr. Johnson "might decide in the end that it’s better to risk that referendum, and hopefully win it, rather than get into what would be a kind of cataclysmic confrontation between the British and Scottish governments.”
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