Boris Johnson, Brussels and the battle for Brexit
It was one of Britain’s hottest July days on record and Conservative MPs fanned themselves with order papers when the House of Commons’ air conditioning system struggled to cope. The temperature rose even further as Boris Johnson barrelled on to the centre stage of British politics.
“Our mission is to deliver Brexit on October 31 for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth,” the new prime minister boomed on Wednesday, painting a picture of a harmonious and free land, blessed with high-speed broadband, electric planes and blight-free crops. If only Brexit could be delivered.
Mr Johnson may be famous for lacking discipline, yet within 24 hours of becoming prime minister, he had set down two decisive markers that will shape British politics as the deadline for leaving the EU approaches.
The first is that the Conservative party has now unashamedly become a Brexit party. Dissenters have been pushed to the sidelines. And for many in Brussels, it also seems clear that Mr Johnson has chosen a path of confrontation, rather than compromise.
The result is that a new general election, which many Conservatives had seemed desperate to avoid after their drubbing in the May European polls, is now a genuine possibility in the autumn.
“He’s obviously putting everything on a war footing,” Keith Simpson, a veteran Tory MP, says of Mr Johnson.
During the contest for the Tory leadership, Mr Johnson was accused by rival Jeremy Hunt of “peddling optimism”. By the time he reached 10 Downing Street, the prime minister was selling it by the cartload, determinedly trying to put behind his party the three years of political agony it endured under Theresa May, her premiership defined, and slowly strangled, by Brexit.
Mr Johnson has an alternative Brexit plan. It involves a lot of “pluck” — a popular British word evoking Dunkirk and Rorke’s Drift — but does not involve much detail.
The advent of the Johnson era marked a dramatic change of political direction. Within hours of shaking hands with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Mr Johnson had completed the most extensive round of political butchery in recent years: 15 of Mrs May’s cabinet were sacked or resigned before the axe fell.
The nature of Mr Johnson’s new administration was quickly revealed. It amounted, essentially, to a takeover of government by the 2016 Vote Leave campaign: a team of true Brexit believers with a dual mission to deliver Brexit by October 31 and then to turn their campaigning skills to winning a general election which most Tory MPs now expect within months.
Mr Johnson named Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary who has suggested suspending parliament to prevent MPs from stopping a no-deal exit, as his foreign secretary. Michael Gove, a Vote Leave frontman, will co-ordinate no-deal planning, including a public information exercise to prepare the country for a cliff-edge exit. Priti Patel, a Leaver who once favoured the return of capital punishment, is home secretary.
Meanwhile in the backroom is Dominic Cummings — described by former prime minister David Cameron as “a career psychopath”, who was the mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign — and a press team forged in the heat of the 2016 referendum battle.
Mr Johnson insisted this week that he would “much prefer” to strike a deal with the rest of the EU to ensure a smooth and harmonious divorce, but he warned that a failure to leave on October 31 “whatever the circumstances” would cause “a catastrophic loss of confidence in our political system”.
The prospects for Mr Johnson securing a deal do not, on the face of it, look promising. He wants to rip up the 585-page withdrawal treaty negotiated by Mrs May and the EU last November and “abolish” the backstop for the Irish border: an insurance clause which would see the whole of the UK remain in a “temporary” customs union with the EU to ensure no physical checks at the frontier. He would be happy to speak to the EU “on this basis” about a revised deal. If Brussels refused, he would walk out without a deal, taking with him the £39bn divorce settlement Mrs May agreed to pay the EU.
The response from Brussels was short and sharp. Jean Claude-Juncker, European Commission president, agreed to swap phone numbers with Mr Johnson but suggested he need not bother calling unless the approach changes.
Mr Juncker, who had politely declined Mr Johnson’s suggestion of a midnight parley on Wednesday, said on Thursday the withdrawal agreement was “the best and only agreement possible”. Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, advised the 27 remaining member states that the “combative” Mr Johnson had made “unacceptable” demands.
Before he became prime minister, Mr Johnson embodied both the EU’s worst nightmares and its greatest hopes for a smooth Brexit.
While some Europeans readily agreed with the US president’s view that he is “Britain Trump”, a jaunty populist touting dangerous ideas, others also saw potential in Mr Johnson’s gift for political alchemy.
“Boris can do anything,” says one senior French official, speaking in the weeks before he took office. “In a way, it may be easier to deal with him.”
Mr Johnson’s record of flip-flopping on issues — for example, quietly dropping his promise to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” to stop the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport — suggested he might be biddable.
Comparisons were made with Alexis Tsipras, the leftist former Greek premier who called and won a defiant referendum before surrendering to the same bailout terms. One senior EU official referred to The Last Bluff, the title of a recent book on the Greek saga.
Preparations were made in Brussels to revamp Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement to make it more palatable to Brexiters. The fundamental compromises of the exit deal would remain but in re-engineered form. It was a painfully narrow but not impossible path to “the new deal” Mr Johnson demanded.
The core insight was revisiting a version of the Irish backstop the EU first championed, so it applied only to Northern Ireland rather than the entire UK economy. Other options to avoid the backstop being used would be emphasised more clearly.
Negotiators also envisaged some tweaks to this “skinny backstop” to make it more Johnson-friendly. Direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over Northern Ireland could potentially be watered down, for instance, a concession Mrs May’s team never asked for.
Yet the uncertainty didn’t last for long. Mr Johnson’s uncompromising tone has led many in Brussels to conclude that he is not really interested in new negotiations and was perhaps setting them up to fail, giving him an excuse to hold an early election. Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, said Mr Johnson statements were “not in the real world”.
Seen from Brussels, Mr Johnson’s opening gambit could hardly have boxed him in more. “He’s shutting all the doors,” one EU diplomat says.
Many officials now see a no-deal outcome as the most probable scenario. The most despondent think Mr Johnson will attempt to call an election as early as September, so a poll could be held on the week before the European Council meets on October 17. If Mr Johnson wins, the EU sees no path back.
The brinkmanship, if anything, has stiffened resolve in European capitals. “Will member states want to reward a Trumpist in No 10?” asks a senior EU official. “Is that the sort of politics that they think should be seen to be successful? Do you reward those who go rogue?”
The official adds that the EU has “a hierarchy of interest”. “The first is self-preservation, the continued existence and development of the union. The second is an orderly withdrawal. If there is a conflict between one and two, we give priority to number one. Leaders are resigned to the fact that Britain may leave without a deal.”
But Mr Johnson knows the risks of compromising on Brexit: his Eurosceptics, loyal for now, could turn on him.
“The problem for the Conservatives is that for Boris to do a deal means quite a lot of them would leave and it would cause a historic split,” Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party, told the Financial Times this week. “If Boris does a Theresa May and drops the ball, I will be the worst enemy he has got and in those circumstances I will try to get the Brexit party to replace the modern day Conservative party.”
But if talks run into the ground in Brussels, Mr Johnson would then have to confront a parliament which has signalled it will do all in its power to stop him leaving the EU without a deal. Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, is leading the Tory resistance and Mr Johnson has plenty of new enemies following his brutal reshuffle.
In those circumstances, Mr Johnson might be forced to go to the country offering the hardest of Brexits, hoping to neutralise Mr Farage, whose party topped the polls in the European elections. With the Labour opposition enfeebled under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats on the rise, Mr Johnson’s allies believe he could split the opposition and return to Westminster with the majority he needs to complete the Brexit job.
It would be a high-risk strategy. If he got it wrong, Mr Johnson could be out of office before the end of 2019, a footnote in history as one of Britain’s most calamitous and shortest-lived prime ministers.
“The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters, they are going to get it wrong again,” he intoned on the steps of Downing Street this week. Many Conservative MPs, for now, are just relieved to go on holiday, suspend disbelief, and hope that Mr Johnson is right.