Boris Johnson has made U.K. politics entertaining again. His first week as the U.K. prime minister was nothing short of the excitement of a “Game of Thrones” episode.
It started with a “Wednesday massacre” of the Cabinet established under former prime minister Theresa May. On July 24, the same day Johnson officially became the new resident of No. 10 Downing St., he sacked 11 ministers in an hour, including the nine who backed his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for the PM job. Six other ministers, including Hunt, resigned.
Observers called Johnson’s move the “bloodiest cabinet reshuffle in modern history.” Johnson’s friend Nigel Evans referred to it as “a summer’s day massacre.” British media gave Johnson a new nickname: the Godfather.
Then there was a class reunion of Brexiteers. Johnson appointed Dominic Cummings, the chief political strategist of Brexit in 2016, to be his senior adviser. U.K. liberal media called Cummings a “master of dark arts” and blamed his messaging for successfully convincing a slight majority of Britons to vote “leave” from the European Union in 2016.
Keep Your Enemies Close
Besides getting Cummings on his side, Johnson organized a war Cabinet of six senior ministers who all support a “no-deal” Brexit. Among the six, the appointment of Chancellor Michael Gove is the most surprising.
Back in 2016, Gove, along with Cummings and Johnson, led the “Vote Leave” movement. After the Brexiteers won and right before Johnson officially announced his run for prime minister, Gove “stabbed” Johnson in the back by declaring he was running for the same job. Johnson withdrew from the race at the very last minute, and May, a “remain” supporter, ended up becoming the prime minister. May’s “pleasing everyone” approach resulted in a Brexit deal that all sides in Britain hate and eventually cost her the PM job.
A few weeks ago, while Johnson was running against Hunt to replace May, Gove tried to make amends by saying he thought Johnson would make a “great” prime minister. Johnson is not known to be a forgiving person, especially not for the kind of political betrayal Gove pulled three years ago. By appointing Gove to the chancellor position, maybe Johnson is trying to apply the ancient wisdom of keeping your friends close, your enemies closer, and your “frenemy” the closest?
Putting aside personal ambitions and past history, the reunion of the three leaders of the “Vote Leave” movement put the “remain” supporters and the EU on notice that they’re dealing with a different team now.
Boris Has One Job: Brexit
However, not all Brexiteers support Johnson. Steve Baker, one of the most senior Brexiteer members of Parliament and a hard-line Euroskeptic, turned down a job in the Brexit department Johnson offered. This shows Johnson has his work cut out for him. He was elected with one mandate: delivering Brexit. Can he do it?
He clearly understands what his mission is. In his first speech upon becoming PM, Johnson told the world that the British government is “going to fulfil the repeated promises of Parliament to the people and come out of the EU on Oct. 31, no ifs or buts.”
The “remainers” have accused the leaders of the “leave” campaign, including Johnson, of painting an overly simplistic and rosy picture to sell the idea of “Brexit” in 2016. Gove said back in April 2016, “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.” David Davis, the first Brexit secretary, claimed, “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”
In 2019, Johnson tried to set a more realistic expectation by stating that “in the event of a no-deal outcome, there will be difficulties.” But he promised, “With high hearts and growing confidence, we will now accelerate the work of getting ready.”
Johnson is accelerating the work indeed. The Times of London reports that “Johnson has ordered Gove to chair meetings of civil servants and political advisers every day — including Sundays — until the 2016 referendum result is delivered.” Senior adviser Cummings told his staff that “the prime minister had tasked him with delivering Brexit by any means necessary.”
A Controversial Backstop
“By any means necessary” includes a “no-deal” exit, meaning “the UK would immediately leave the European Union (EU) with no agreement about the ‘divorce’ process.” Johnson let the EU know he wants to seek “a better deal that will maximize the opportunities of Brexit while allowing us to develop a new and exciting partnership with the rest of Europe, based on free trade and mutual support.” The most important aspect in this new deal Johnson is seeking is for the EU to drop what Johnson calls an “anti-democratic” Irish backstop.
What is an Irish backstop? There is a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Goods and services travel through the two parts of Ireland seamlessly. But after the U.K. leaves the EU, this could change because each side would have to follow different customs, laws, and regulations.
Since both sides prefer not to see this happen, the backstop was a compromise between May and the EU, which allows Northern Ireland to stay “aligned to some rules of the EU single market … and effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union.” The backstop is controversial in the U.K. because many Brexiteers worry it could be used to “permanently trap the UK in the EU customs union, preventing the country from striking its own trade deals.”
So far, EU leaders have rejected Johnson’s call for a new deal. French President Emmanuel Macron insists the EU won’t renegotiate a new deal, and the Irish prime minister warned a “no-deal” Brexit could lead to a united Ireland.
Who Will Blink First?
The EU and Johnson’s government are engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken. Both sides want to see the other side blink first. Since the Tory Party Johnson leads doesn’t have a majority in the U.K. Parliament, the EU is banking on an early election in the U.K., triggered by opposition parties’ vote of no confidence before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, which may force Johnson’s hand.
While an early election may be bad news for Johnson, some Brexit supporters argue it could also benefit Johnson and the Tory Party because the Labour Party is in chaos. A number of leaders are involved in an anti-Semitic crisis, and more than 40 percent of party members want their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to quit before the next general election.
In a Parliament debate last week, Johnson gave an entertaining and electrifying speech that smacked Corbyn hard on foreign policy and socialism. The Labour Party is reportedly in a panic over Johnson’s momentum and energy at this point. The latest poll by The Sunday Times shows “the Conservatives jumping six points since Johnson became prime minister … and having a 10-point lead over Labour.”
This seems to support the theory that an early general election that capitalizes on the Labour Party’s chaos while Corbyn is still in control is beneficial to Johnson. Should Johnson and his party win the general election, it will give them a much-needed wider mandate on delivering Brexit.
But elections can go both ways. Should the Tory Party experience another big loss, it will spell the end of “Brexit” as we know it. Since an early election seems likely, the key for Johnson and the Tory Party is to persuade enough voters to let the team that started the “leave” campaign finally get the job done.
Johnson said in his first speech as the PM that “Brexit was a fundamental decision by the British people that they wanted their laws made by people that they can elect and they can remove from office.” If Johnson can’t deliver Brexit, he understands he will be quickly removed from his dream job, just like his predecessor.