We all won on 4 Nov

As he bids farewell to the US, Ashish Prashar shares his final thoughts on Obama's election victory

The backdrop of this election has long been the comprehensive failure of conservative policies during the last eight years, and what "change" for those policies should mean. So it wasn’t style but, in fact, substance that dictated the outcome of the election – an election that gave Obama a larger share of the popular vote than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton ever received.

Obama spoke of "government" in a positive context more than any presidential candidate has in at least 20 years. He embraced an "FDR-style infrastructure building program". He consistently placed energy independence as his top domestic priority, backing up the rhetoric with a plan of public investment to get it done. He said health care "should be a right for every American" during the town hall debate and he had a positive message of engagement with the rest of the world.

Obama was taking positions supported by the liberal progressive base of the Democratic Party, but that also held considerable support among self-described moderates. Obama never needed to "pivot" significantly towards the centre. His core positions already represented the American common ground. In the election exit poll, voters expressed the desire for government to "do more" by an eight-point margin.

Much will be made of McCain's "mistakes" in his campaign, but almost every mistake he made was not a personal failing, but were part of a futile but necessary effort to bridge what had become a gulf between conservative base voters and moderate swing voters. After the utter failure of conservatism in every domestic and foreign policy area, there simply was no overlap left between the moderate and conservative camps, no overriding issue that could be the glue to hold together a centre-right coalition.

Then McCain hastily picked a woefully unqualified and uninformed person to be his running mate because he lacked options. He urgently needed someone who could resonate with both base and potential swing voters, and Governor Sarah Palin seemed to offer hope of energising the base while reaching out to undecided women. They delighted conservatives by attacking Obama as a "socialist," which undermined McCain’s attempt to attract moderates.

McCain's erratic style may have made these flops seem particularly spectacular, but the deep rift created during the last eight years between conservatism and the rest of America was probably too big for even a polished candidate to overcome.

Obama's tremendous skills helped navigate the difficult waters of racial politics and fend off an avalanche of smears. But all that did was return the presidential race to its substantive fundamentals, made all the starker as the financial crisis put an exclamation point on the damage already wrought on our economy.

Trying to figure out how to repair the breach between conservatives and moderates is a problem for the conservative movement, not for us. We won - and I don't mean just the Democrats or the people who voted for Obama. I mean all of us. Every man, woman and child, no matter what colour their skin, no matter their ancestry, no matter their faith or sexual orientation has won something from the election of Obama as the next President of the United States.

The people of America still have a lot of work to do, but they can do it knowing that one of the last borders has finally been crossed. The challenge is to turn the progressive mandate the public has given President-elect Obama into bold action. And that work starts ... now.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.