This week Britain welcomes its new prime minister – the flamboyant Boris Johnson, a former London mayor and British foreign secretary, and, of course, a blustering Brexit campaigner. And, interestingly, Donald Trump himself claimed that Boris Johnson is popular in the UK because he’s seen as ‘Britain’s Trump’. Brexit, however, is still in the soup, with a new deadline of 31 October. Johnson is here because ‘Therexit’ happened in between – ‘Therexit’ being the portmanteau of ‘Theresa’ and ‘Exit’. This is how Theresa May’s exit was described by a section of the media.
May made her job as British prime minister more and more difficult by calling an absolutely unnecessary snap election which curtailed her strength in the Parliament; by triggering Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the EU which set a two-year clock ticking before making a concrete pathway, and making a consensus with the opposition Labour Party or even within her own party, and by imposing a hard Brexit even though there was a slender margin in favour of ‘Leave’ in the Brexit vote.
Johnson has become the prime minister by defeating Jeremy Hunt by getting two-thirds of the votes of about 160,000 party members across the UK. But Britons are more divided now, and more Britons are now favouring ‘Remain’ than ‘Leave’, as indicated by several recent polls. Certainly Johnson has an uphill task ahead, which is clear from one of his first tweets after being elected as the Conservative leader and prime minister designate: “It’s time to get to work to deliver Brexit by 31st October, unite the party, defeat Jeremy Corbyn – and energise our country!” Ironically, each of these is a difficult task, and Johnson himself knows that better than anybody else. Johnson insists that he can get the EU to renegotiate the Brexit deal, which the EU insists it won’t do. It’s never easy although Michel Barnier, EU’s chief Brexit negotiator wanted to work “constructively” with the new Conservative leader “to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Convincing the British parliament, even his Conservative MPs, will not be easy for Johnson. Don’t forget that it was this January when Britain’s House of Commons saw the largest defeat of a government motion in 100 years when May’s Brexit deal could manage the support of only 196 Conservative MPs, while the other 118 Conservative MPs voted against. And Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is possibly playing a waiting game to see the Conservative Party get more vulnerable. Corbyn is up to grab the opportunity to become the British prime minister at an opportune time. So, it’s a trapeze act for Johnson – both at home and outside. And remember that Theresa May couldn’t handle it.
When May took office in July 2016, standing on the steps of Downing Street she announced her desire to “fight against burning injustices”. But unfortunately, she could not get out of the divorce process called Brexit. Effectively she remained just as an officer-in-charge for Brexit. For the time being, this is bound to happen to Johnson as well – Brexit is such a defining event in the history of the country.
At the moment, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is gaining momentum by peeling off much of the Conservative vote, as is seen in the recent European elections. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are also gaining teeth. As Farage is ready to ally with the Conservatives, unless a Brexit deal happens by the end of October, Johnson would possibly have no other option than to choose to leave the EU without any deal. And, as has been seen before, Parliament and even the Tory MPs are intractably divided; thus, a No-Deal exit looks far from impossible. And No-Deal may not be better than a bad deal! Although the exact consequences of such a No-Deal Brexit cannot be foreseen, several top economists have already warned that this would disrupt trade and plunge the UK into recession.
During the Brexit referendum, Scotland voted to stay within EU. So, once Brexit happens, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will possibly make an all-out effort to leave the UK. That again will not be an easy challenge to tackle.
In an opinion piece in ‘The Guardian’, Owen Jones described Theresa May as the worst prime minister in modern times. However, it seems that Brexit was the main reason behind that. Unless Johnson does something extraordinary, such critics of May might get an opportunity to revisit their statement.
For the time being, Brexit is a political black hole – political careers of two prime ministers have been swallowed by this. Now, it will be interesting to watch and see whether ‘BorisExit’ happens or not before Brexit is staged, or if Britain leaves EU at all.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.