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Will Johnson succeed where May failed?

  • Published at 12:02 am August 11th, 2019
Photo: AFP

Preparing for Brexit and more

Boris Johnson has stepped into the smaller shoes of Theresa May on July 24. During a speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by the October 31 “no ifs, no buts.”

Johnson has given key roles to leading Brexiteers.

Dominic Raab and Priti Patel have returned to government as foreign secretary and home secretary, respectively.

Sajid Javid has become chancellor -- as more than half of Theresa May’s old cabinet, including leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, have either quit or were sacked. The Tory Party, most, unfortunately, are still divided over how to dig itself and the country out of the political hole of Brexit.

PM Johnson has barely the votes in Parliament to guarantee safe passage for any proposal.

Departing ministers from the previous administration have also made it clear that they will hinder, rather than help in the evolving equation that involves leaving the EU. He 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 realize that the country is still deeply split, and that both sides are becoming increasingly polarized. 

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 be not only severely hurt by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party but also that Johnson’s political career would come to a standstill.

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.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has however 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.

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

It is being noted in this regard that such a scenario where Johnson is unable to gain concessions would then most likely lead to an early British general election. Such a situation would then lead to him losing all credibility.

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 is granted another extension by the EU27 to find a solution.

Given the increasing polarization, the challenging nature of politics in Westminster and the absence of an obvious Labour leading figure 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 still be PM 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.

The British PM 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. 

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. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]