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Brexit: Will Johnson succeed where May failed?

Muhammad Zamir   | Published: August 04, 2019 20:47:11


Boris Johnson (right), then foreign secretary, left the government of Theresa  May in 2018 over  her Chequers Brexit plan.                 —Photo: Reuters

Boris Johnson has stepped into the smaller shoes of Theresa May on  July 24. The new Conservative leader assumed the office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) following an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Subsequently, in a brief speech in front of 10, Downing Street  he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the European Union (EU) by October 31 "no ifs, no buts".

Mr Johnson has given key roles to leading Brexiteers. Interestingly, the BBC has noted that following his appointment as Leader of the Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg, who led the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group (ERG), has denied there had been a "Leave" takeover of the Cabinet. Instead he has underlined that "Boris is bringing the country together, the party together, through his cabinet appointments." He had been asked to respond to the fact that the number of Leave supporters in the new Cabinet had jumped to 12 from 6 (six) in the previous Cabinet.

The Tory Party is still divided over how to dig itself and the country out of the political hole of Brexit. Prime Minister Johnson has barely the votes in Parliament to guarantee safe passage for any proposal. Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of the BBC News, has observed that there are policy problems everywhere in sight, whether it relates to finding a solution to the conundrums of Brexit with a reluctant EU and a divided party, or trying to address other problems at home.

Larissa Brunner of European Policy Centre (EPC)  has drawn attention to the different challenges and constraints that Boris Johnson is likely to face while tackling the next chapter of the Brexit saga and attempting to find a positive solution to this problem

Johnson has started by making categorical promises but his rhetoric will have to deal with a simple fact. Both he and the Conservative Party need to realise that the country is still deeply split and both sides are becoming increasingly polarised. This has been underlined through the recent You Gov Poll. Tory Leavers have reiterated that they would be unlikely to forgive a reversal - 61 per cent of Conservative members have indicated that they would be willing to stomach significant damage to the UK economy in order to see the withdrawal from the EU come to fruition. It would be worthwhile to remember that the Conservative Party's membership might not be representative of its voters. The results however indicate the strength of feeling at the grassroots.

Such a scenario points to the fact that if the Conservatives were to go into the next general election without having delivered Brexit, they would in all likelihood not only be severely hurt by Nigel Farage's Brexit Party but also that Johnson's political career would come to a standstill. It may be mentioned that the recent European Parliament elections have seen the Brexit Party come first with 30.7 per cent of the UK vote with the Conservatives in fifth place with only 8.8 per cent.

Johnson has promised to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular the backstop for the Irish border. However, such a formula has been rejected by the EU repeatedly.

Added to the above constraints is the fact that the EU27 has become increasingly unwilling to grant the UK another extension, even if there is no deal in place by October 31.

Several factors have been creating a sense of disappointment in the European Union (EU) about the way the current delay has been used by the UK. The EU leadership has been monitoring carefully the growing polarisation in UK politics and society where anything short of 'no deal' or 'no Brexit' is seen as unacceptable by the two rival camps respectively. They are also noting that this phenomenon is leading to the inability of the UK Government and Parliament to find a positive solution.

The initial efforts made by Johnson on Brexit during his first speech to British MPs appears to have drawn a negative response from the EU. Johnson had remarked that he was committed to "getting rid" of the Irish border backstop, which has long been a bone of contention in negotiations. The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has observed that removing the backstop guarantee was unacceptable. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has also reiterated to Johnson that the EU believed that its position about the already-negotiated withdrawal agreement was the best one possible. However, the Commission would be available over the coming weeks if the UK wanted to hold talks.

Consequently, after the recent EU Parliamentary election, some have observed that unless a request for another extension is well-justified (e.g. through a second referendum or general election), or follows a substantive decision made by the UK which requires more time for implementation, the EU27 is unlikely to approve such a request. 

In such a scenario where Johnson is unable to gain concessions would then most likely lead to an early British general election. Johnson would then lose all credibility. This would also certainly see a surge in support for the Brexit Party and could lead to the right-wing vote being split between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, thus paving the way for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to bag the ruling seat - an unmitigated disaster for Johnson, the Conservative Party and its voters.

Interestingly, some political analysts have also referred to another possibility. This is being referred to as the third narrative where Tory Party, on Johnson's failure, does not accept the risk of a general election, ousts Johnson through a vote in the British Parliament and replaces him with a unity candidate who might be granted another extension by the EU27 to find a solution.

Such a scenario, at this time is however being considered as far-fetched. Followers of Johnson are already pointing out that a successful no-confidence motion would trigger a two-week period during which Johnson and his would-be successors would try to assemble a majority. Given the increasing polarisation, the challenging nature of politics in Westminster and the absence of an obvious Labour leading figure that could attract moderate Conservative MPs it is hard to imagine that the current Parliament could agree quickly on a unity candidate within a few days. This would mean that Johnson would probably still be Prime Minister when the UK is due to leave the EU on  October 31. Johnson followers are also underlining that all that he would need to do in order to trigger a no-deal Brexit is to refrain from asking the EU27 for an extension of Article 50.

However, any analysis would be incomplete without referring to some other difficult global issues which the new UK PM will have to tackle. BBC's diplomatic correspondent James Landale  has identified the following in this regard.

The first task will be to repair UK-US relations that have been affected through comments made by the former British Ambassador Darroch. Both sides are bruised. The White House is still smarting from having been described as inept and dysfunctional by the Ambassador. Mr Johnson chose not to support him in a TV debate. The world will wait to find out as to who will be chosen to steady the ship in Washington. This has assumed importance given the evolving geo-strategic paradigm that includes the question of navigating through the troubled waters pertaining to China and Iran. The new Prime Minister will have to draw the line somewhere and that will require some nifty diplomacy, especially as the Trump White House sees China as a strategic opponent and wants all its allies to share that view.

The new Prime Minister will also need to give priority to what is described as the international rules-based order - the post-War institutions and values that placed multilateral co-operation between groups of nations ahead of the crude nationalism that has wrought so much damage in recent times. These bodies and ideas are being challenged by the populist power politics of several world leaders who consider international relations as bilateral and a zero-sum game, where one country can gain only at another's expense.

The last issue that will be watched carefully by the world is how the new British Prime Minister handles the diplomatic dispute over the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Till now Britain has not sounded conciliatory. However, the time to take a broader strategic decision might have arrived. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to

information and good governance.

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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