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New U.K. Prime Minister Changes Tough Brexit Politics Only Slightly


Same song, second verse. The accession of Boris Johnson to the premiership of the United Kingdom, after winning a contest to succeed Theresa May as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, doesn’t change the fundamental dynamics in Parliament that made Brexit impossible for May to achieve. It may, however, change the range of possible outcomes coming from the current parliamentary stalemate.

For the past three years, May faced sniping from the right of the Conservative Party, which wanted Brexit by any means necessary. By contrast, Johnson now must combat centrist Conservative critics, who fear a rightward turn that will crash Britain out of the European Union in a way that causes major economic damage.

Deadlock in the Commons

Prior to the first vote on May’s Brexit agreement, I wrote in December that her options seemed bleak. Several of the scenarios outlined have come to pass, yet none have placed Britain any closer to a final outcome of its negotiations with the European Union:

  • May tried—not once, not twice, but three separate times—to push Brexit legislation through the House of Commons, and failed every time;
  • After the repeated failures to agree to legislation, May went to the European Union and asked for an extension of Article 50 (the process by which states can withdraw from the EU) through October 31 of this year; and
  • May ultimately decided to resign as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, to allow another individual to deliver on Brexit.

Because Johnson won the premiership through a ballot of Conservative Party members, rather than a general election, the current breakdown of the parties in the House of Commons remains unchanged. That leaves Johnson’s Conservatives lacking an overall majority, and relying upon Northern Irish MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to maintain their control in Parliament.

With the government lacking an overall majority, most other parties either opposing Brexit outright or supporting a second referendum on the issue, and DUP members caring most about the status of Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations—they strongly oppose any efforts that would either impose a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or subject Northern Ireland to different customs arrangements post-Brexit than the rest of the United Kingdom—Johnson, like his predecessor, will have precious little room to maneuver when striking a deal.

Deal or No Deal?

But Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party see another potential opportunity, one in which Johnson can achieve Brexit simply by doing nothing. With current law stating that the United Kingdom will depart the European Union on October 31, they hope Johnson can force the EU into additional concessions with the threat of a “no deal” departure. If the EU does not concede, then Britain can by default depart the Union without a formal agreement regarding post-Brexit trade and other issues.

In recent weeks, talk has centered around whether a Prime Minister Johnson could go so far as to prorogue Parliament—dismissing MPs for a period of time—to prevent the House of Commons from taking action to thwart a “no deal” Brexit. During the Conservative Party leadership race, Johnson reportedly started examining such a scenario, while his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, ruled prorogation out.

Even prior to the announcement that Johnson had won the leadership of the Conservative Party, half a dozen members of the current Cabinet had already announced their resignations. They decided to depart before being pushed, because they would not agree to participate in a government using “no deal” as part of its negotiating strategy. All can potentially vote against the government on the backbenches—just as pro-Brexit MPs brought down May’s deal earlier this year.

To give a sense of the sturm und drang within the Conservative Party, over the weekend Philip Hammond, the outgoing chancellor of the Exchequer, said he would not rule out voting to bring down Johnson’s government in a vote of confidence to prevent a “no deal” Brexit. Likewise, former Conservative prime minister John Major—who knows quite a bit about internal party fights over Europe—said he would attempt to take the government to court over the matter.

The fact that one former party leader, and a current senior official in May’s government, would oppose a fellow Conservative so strongly speaks to the import of the constitutional decisions being contemplated, and the deepening fissures amongst all parties over the Brexit issue.

Zeal of the Converted?

Controversies within the political classes notwithstanding, Conservative Party members just finished having their say on the matter—and they voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Johnson bested Jeremy Hunt by a nearly two-to-one margin in the Conservative ballot, as voters chose a prominent Leave supporter over someone who voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Ironically, however, questions remain about the depth of Johnson’s support for Brexit. While serving as mayor of a very cosmopolitan city, he did not distinguish himself as a sharp skeptic of the European Union.

During the referendum campaign three years ago, Conservative party grandee Kenneth Clarke said Johnson supported Brexit as “a deliberate ploy both to destabilize [then-Prime Minister David] Cameron, and reinforce his position as darling of the grassroots when the PM calls it a day.” Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, like Clarke a supporter of close relations with Europe, said as much on Tuesday, claiming that Johnson has “fed the sharks” within the Conservative Party.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump said “I alone can fix” the problems facing the United States. With Brexit having proven an intractable problem for May—thought amongst British politicians as the proverbial “safe pair of hands”— Johnson has spent the past six weeks convincing the Conservative Party that he, largely by dint of personality, can succeed where May failed. For the futures of both Johnson and Britain, the stakes couldn’t prove higher.