EU Affairs

New Protagonists in the Brexit Drama

What does Boris Johnson Change?

A new protagonist will be elected during the break in the Brexit drama: The likely to be next Prime Minister Boris Johnson is heading for confrontation with the European Union, the British Parliament and his own party.

The negotiations on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union are on a break. Whether it is a halftime break, as in football, or a one-third break as in ice hockey, remains uncertain. It therefore makes sense to talk about a break between two acts. One of the protagonists of the first act, British Prime Minister Theresa May, has tragically failed as chief negotiator, which is why her role in the second act is re-casted.


Her successor as Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister is likely to be Boris Johnson. The former mayor of London is seen as favourite in the party-internal competition with the acting foreign minister Jeremy Hunt. Other candidates, of whom there were eight in total, were already eliminated in a pre-election procedure within the conservative parliamentary fraction. Johnson’s support among the MPs was so great, that he could practically choose which opponent he wanted to compete against in the final duel.


 Hunt’s Appeal: He is not Boris Johnson


The only real competition would have probably been current Development Minister Rory Stewart. He had vehemently opposed the withdrawal of the United Kingdom without an agreement during the primaries, and thus took a significantly different position than the party favourite. Johnson may have instructed some of his supporters to vote for other candidates, to drop Stewart as early as possible. With Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson now has an opponent whose appeal is mainly that he is not Boris Johnson.


The approximately 160,000 members of the Conservative Party may still vote until 22 July for one of the two candidates. One day later, on 23 July, the winner will be officially announced before Boris Johnson will be appointed Prime Minister by Queen Elizabeth II on 24 July. An election by the deputies of the lower house, such as in the German Bundestag, is not provided for in the British system. The party leader of the largest fraction in the lower house is automatically appointed head of government.


Liberals also Elect New Party Leadership


However, not only the conservative party is re-casting its leading part. On the other side of the Brexit spectrum, namely the most ardent supporters of a second referendum, the Liberal Democrats will also elect a new party leader. Some 100,000 Liberal Party members are eligible to cast their vote for one of two candidates until July 22: The young Scottish MP Jo Swinson or former Energy Secretary Ed Davey. The Liberals will then announce the winner of their competition on the same evening, one day before the Conservatives.


The race for the Liberal Party chairmanship is extremely narrow. Both candidates stand for a determined fight against Brexit and climate change. Despite similar goals, they are supported by a different clientele within the party. Davey gathers most support from the older and masculine fraction, while Swinson wins especially with the younger and female members. The winner, and therefore main challenger to Prime Minister Johnson and his mission to complete Brexit, will definitely want to play a major role in the second act of the Brexit drama.


Boris Johnson has already made his goals clear on several occasions during the election campaign. Firstly, he does not want any further extension beyond the current exit date, October 31st. Secondly, he is willing to pull out without agreement in order to reach this first goal.


This week, during a radio interview, he clearly outlined his approach to new negotiations with the EU: His main condition is not just a time limit for a backstop for Northern Ireland, but the complete abandonment of such. Apart from the fact that the European Union has so far signalled no readiness to renegotiate the existing agreement, it could never agree to this requirement with regard to peace on the Irish island.


Johnson on Collision Course


One thing has become clear: Boris Johnson deliberately wants to channel his country into a no-deal scenario. He is thus on a collision course with three major players: his own fraction, the British Parliament and the European Union.


Members of the conservative party are still divided between advocates of Brexit (Brexiteers) and those who want either a Brexit with strong ties to the European Union or even a second referendum (Remainers). Both camps were represented in Theresa May’s government team and have influenced the negotiations.


Boris Johnson’s election threatens to shift the balance of power in favour of the Brexiteers. Observers believe that Remainers, such as Finance Minister Philip Hammond or Development Secretary Stewart, will have to vacate their posts. The future Cabinet could then consist only of convinced Brexiteers. For Johnson this poses the danger of conservative MPs voting against their own government or migrating to other fractions. Three Tory MPs already left their fraction under May. Another Tory MP recently lost his mandate for infidelity. His constituency in Wales will hold a by-election on August 1, with Welsh Liberal Democrats party leader Jane Dodds as favourite. While the Liberal Democrats are beginning to gain strength through defections and by-elections, the narrow majority of the government continues to shrink. The future PM Johnson will have to rely on a majority of just three MPs in the lower house.

However, the future Prime Minister may also try to simply bypass Parliament. Although an exit agreement with the EU requires parliamentary approval, if there is neither an agreement nor an extension, then the exit simply “happens” without an agreement. Many parliamentarians fear that Johnson is pursuing this scenario and are therefore trying to prevent it through targeted legislation. However, observers are divided over whether Parliament ultimately has the necessary authority to stop a government on a no-deal course. In a country without a codified constitution, such questions give rise to much speculation.


Uncomfortable Negotiations


For the European Union, uncomfortable negotiations with new Prime Minister Boris Johnson are looming. His demands ignore as far as possible the results of previous discussions and must be seen as largely unacceptable to Brussels. Much more decisive than the subject of the discussion, however, could be the tone of future talks. So far, the negotiators on both sides have dealt with each other respectfully and diplomatically, refraining from publicly discrediting the other side even after unsuccessful rounds of talks.


Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay’s recent visit to Brussels, which is said to have led to a confrontational exchange with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, suggests a change in this negotiation culture. Unfortunately, it seems likely that under Johnson’s leadership, the British negotiating team will appear more defiant, disrespectful and deliberately publicly discredit the European Union. This threatens to deepen the trenches in an already troubled British society. The second act in the Brexit drama is becoming more intense and probably uglier than the first one. Whether the third act will then be a second referendum or the consequences of an uncontrolled exit, remains open.


Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager

FNF Expert Hub for Security Political Dialogue