A few weeks back, I had written that the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could very well be another Brexit prime minister. Now it appears that he is headed in that direction slowly and surely. Unless he removes his red lines or the EU compromises on its, Johnson could well be the third prime ministerial victim of Brexit from the Tories.
Before him, David Cameron left the post because he called the EU referendum and campaigned for Remain, but the Leave side won the vote, making his position untenable. His successor, Teresa May, lost her post after failing three times to get parliamentary approval to the withdrawal agreement she had signed with the EU to deliver an orderly British exit.
From US President Donald Trump’s playbook, Johnson appears to have taken a page. Trump has been breaking the decorum, conventions, and laws left and right, tolerated by the toothless Republicans and acquiesced by a Supreme Court whose Republicans-nominated justices have been accused in the media of a partisan approach. He had advised May to take the EU to court rather than negotiate a deal. Since she didn’t listen to him, he has been quite scathing in his remarks towards her.
In public, Trump has favored Johnson over May and other British leaders, except for Nigel Farage. The bluff Johnson made to the EU during the leadership selection and after becoming prime minister amply suggests that Johnson has taken Trump’s bait to hang tough to bend the EU and to expect a quick trade deal with the UK upon its exit.
Both measures are non sequitur. While he may like to believe it, Johnson does not wield the same economic and military influence as Trump does to cow other leaders, including from the EU, into submission. For whatever reason, Britain is a medium-sized player in the EU and the world.
Besides, Trump cannot offer a trade deal to the UK unless the Democrats controlled House of Representatives approves it. The reason is simple. If Britain jeopardizes the Good Friday Agreement that ended the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland at the behest of US President Bill Clinton, the Democrats in the US have said they would block the new trade deal even if it is concluded, which is highly suspect, given Trump’s volatility. For starters, the US house has a strong Irish representation.
In view of all this, odds are stacked against Johnson. Though he has exuded optimism about the deal at the last minute, he has done everything to make sure there is no deal. For instance, he took weeks to meet his counterparts from the EU to get the ball rolling. He took weeks to meet German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Only next week, he is meeting the EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. He hasn’t met other leaders and seems to have no plan for it right now.
In addition, while there was no green flag from France, Johnson has not, according to the EU leaders, submitted the alternative to the backstop negotiated by May and rejected by the parliament, though the 30-day time frame, a sort of, given by Merkel for a concrete and viable proposal to replace the backstop has almost run out. As EU leaders have complained, Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, seems to beat around the bush in Brussels.
As such, the march towards crashing out seems irreversible at the level of rhetoric. Johnson has repeated umpteen times that the UK would come out of the EU on 31 October 2019, no matter what. As we know, the parliament has passed a law under which he must seek an extension if he can’t get a deal he wants from the EU.
Nonetheless, his acolytes have hinted that the prime minister could even defy the law or test it at the court. the parliament has rejected his proposal to call general elections twice.
But as some legal experts have suggested, breaking the law will bring its own consequences, including imprisonment. Therefore, Johnson will have to either resign or to ask his supporters to vote against him in a no-confidence motion possibly to force the Labor to support a general election. In the fixed-term parliament, a two-thirds majority is required to hold a mid-term election.
I say possibly considering, after the no-confidence vote, the opposition leader gets two weeks to form his government before the election is imposed. If Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, forms his government, then he would set the date for the election, not Johnson.
So for Johnson, all options—to request an extension of the Brexit date until the end of January 2020, as the parliament has asked him to, to resign or to break the law — come with their exacting costs.
For instance, the request for extension will enrage the European Research Group, the hard-line Euro-skeptics, who would ask for Johnson’s head, as they had May’s. Resigning will get him out of 10 Downing Street and breaking the law will eventually catch up with him.
However, a deal is not out of reach, not yet. If the Democratic Unionist Party agrees to the North Ireland only backstop, originally suggested by the EU but rejected by the UK, it is possible. But will the DUP agree? As DUP leaders have said, they wouldn’t. Already heading a minority government, after he removed the whip from 21 members of parliament from his party, Johnson has nothing to lose.
So if he bullies/disregards the DUP, whose support was essential to prop up May’s government but not enough to keep Johnson in his chair, the deal is still possible. Will Johnson take the bait? Only time will tell.