Boris Johnson, PM: What Comes Next?

Boris Johnson has been elected leader of the Conservative Party and presumably he will soon form a new government. The leitmotif of his campaign was optimism: that all the country needs is a Prime Minister with positive attitude and a good Brexit deal would follow. What has been missing is some will power. This myth is about to collide with reality. Indeed, reality bit last week when parliament took measures to prevent prorogation. Because Johnson refused to rule out dismissing parliament, his government endured serious defeat even before it came into existence. This underlies the serious challenges he faces. 

Brexit would be a challenge for any Prime Minister, but it is a particular challenge to Johnson. He made the ballot on the belief that he was the only candidate capable of neutralising Farage and bringing disaffected Brexiters back to the Conservative Party. He then won the ballot by promising the members that we would leave the EU come what may on Halloween. He has made noises that he will be able to produce a better deal than Theresa May. Specifically, he requires some change to the ‘Irish backstop.’ This will require him to accomplish in three months what his predecessor could not do in three years. The question is what happens next? Honestly, I’m not sure, but it’s fun to speculate. 

It should be immediately evident that Johnson faces a Gordian knot of a problem, but possess only a butter knife in his scabbard (please forgive the clumsy classicism, but it goes hand in hand with the subject). The people who have put him in office, the membership of the Tory Party, seem wildly out of step with the general public. They are willing to countenance Irish reunification, the dissolution of the union between England and Scotland, and even the destruction of their own party as a price worth paying for Brexit. Over the past few months the idea of leaving the EU with no deal has gained legitimacy in the ranks. This will constrain the approach of the new PM. He will not be able to sell May’s deal without significant revisions; it will not satisfy the Brexit Party voters he wishes to woo back to simply give it a new lick of paint. Given that the EU is unlikely to throw Ireland under the bus and ditch the backstop, Johnson will be in an awkward position. He has said he is willing to leave without a deal, but it is evident that parliament is not and there are many clever parliamentarians willing to do whatever it takes to block it. There are several sequences that could follow from this.  

Boris’ Dream

The path that is most attractive to Johnson is probably something like this: 

1)   Get a deal through parliament and if that is not possible still leave on 31 October. 

2)   Call a general election as soon as possible. Farage’s party will no longer have a reason to exist, he can claim to have delivered Brexit, and the pain of no deal will not yet have hit. 

3)   Win a majority by exploiting Labour’s divisions and drawing on returned Brexiters to offset defections to the LibDems in the South.

4)   Negotiate a fast trade deal with the United States that can be touted as a replacement for EU membership and sign of the ‘Global Britain’ to come. 

There are many obstacles to this outcome but the one that stands out is Trump. Johnson will have tied his fortune, and the entire country, to one of the most fickle, mendacious, and thin-skinned politicians ever to occupy the Oval Office. One only needs to look at how Trump has treated weaker partners during his business career to guess at how he will treat a desperate and isolated UK at the negotiating table.

Boris’ Nightmare

The worst-case scenario for Johnson is something like this:

1)    He fails to achieve significant concessions from the EU, but parliament intervenes against no deal. Tory rebels, led by heavy hitters like Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart, decide to put country before party and bring down the government. 

2)    There is an election before Halloween. Johnson will fight against a furious Brexit Party on the right and resurgent LibDems occupying the centre. 

3)    The Tories suffer major losses. They are punished in the Southern Remain seats, like Richmond Park, which flip to the LibDems; and in Northern Leave seats, like Mansfield, which flip to the Brexit Party. 

4)    The Labour Party becomes the largest party and Corbyn visits the Queen. He governs with the support of LibDems and/or the SNP. Article 50 is revoked. The Conservative Party effectively dies on his watch. 

As with the dream scenario there are many things that could prevent this from happening. It rests, for example, on Corbyn being able to pull Labour back together in a way that allows them to win the plurality of seats. 

Neither of these sequences are cheering. The dream scenario leaves us negotiating with the Trump administration and trying to avoid chlorinated chicken and opening the NHS to American businesses. The nightmare scenario may give comfort to Remainers, but it would produce a deep political crisis, almost as dangerous as no deal, when the Brexiters are denied their prize. In both cases the country will need a leader able to heal bitter divisions. We would have Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. Their true believers think they are up to the job, but I see no cause for optimism. 


PS: Boris’ Mad Hallucination

There is a rather mad sequence that I rather like:

1)    He fails to gain significant concessions from the Europeans, but realises that he has no chance of pushing no deal through parliament without splitting his party and forcing a general election that will decimate his party.  

2)    The Prime Minister decides that the only way to deliver Brexit is to go over the head of parliament. He asks, and receives, an extension from the EU to fight a second referendum. 

3)    Johnson heads the campaign to leave the EU with no deal. His approach is something along the lines of “The metropolitan elite in Westminister won’t let us leave” etc. 

This is not as outlandish as it seems. A second referendum will allow Johnson to do what he is best at in a way he can’t in parliament. He will be able to bluster, bend the truth, and bombastically preach about the land of hope and glory in defiance of the ‘tyrants’ in Brussels. He will not have to deal directly with accountability or hard questions from cabinet colleagues and the opposition. Labour, because of recent manoeuvres by Remainers, must support the referendum and campaign to remain. This will embarrass Corbyn and cause fissures to widen within the Labour Party. The Prime Minister’s gamble would be that he can energise the Brexiters enough to get the vote out and that the Remain campaign would be disorganised and so attuned to the sensitivities of Labour Leavers that it will not succeed. I doubt it would play out this way, but I can see why someone like Boris Johnson might be willing to roll the dice on such a strategy.