Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Ollie Arci
Just over two years ago, arch-leaver Boris Johnson was pipped to the post in the race to be Britain’s new Prime Minister, stumped by fellow europhobe Michael Gove. In the latest Conservative campaign the former Telegraph columnist marched unceasingly to the leadership of the party and the United Kingdom, promising that the country would depart the European Union, “do or die”, on October 31st.
Now, in perhaps a cruel twist of fate, the author of an infamous bus-based slogan will have to deliver to the National Health Service the promised 350 million pound each week and untangle the mess that has become of Brexit.
Boris Johnson has been handed the poisoned chalice of ‘Britain’s relationship with the EU,’ at whose rim a number of Conservative leaders have now fallen. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Johnson is an altogether more blusterous character, much like his counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. After a career complaining about the EU from a newspaper column, Johnson will now play an outsized part in its future.
The methodical Theresa May, holding office just a smidge longer than Tony Blair’s successor, and keeping her inner circle to a little more than a threesome, failed to live up to the promise of an all-conquering Britain abandoning the shackles of security seventy years after the fall of the empire. The fact is there never was a solution that would please everyone – the man, or woman, standing athwart history is uninformed and will eventually die off (one hopes).
But let’s take Boris Johnson’s aspirations at face-value – a desire to become the next Prime Minister and make a success of Brexit. His tenure as Foreign Secretary was short-lived and bedevilled by reports of an inattention to detail, portending failure when it comes to the notoriously complicated arrangements needed to disengage from the EU.
Now, Johnson has never professed to be the best deal-maker in the world (as do other leaders), but it is hard to comprehend how the Eton-graduate plans to twist the arm of Michel Barnier and rally the remaining 27 EU member states in a way that May couldn’t. Does he have a better plan?
All evidence suggests that he will double down, pledging to leave the EU without a deal, despite the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Britain’s biggest business group, insisting he had to secure a deal in his first 100 days. Such a move would be disastrous to British industry, and many firms have already sought fairer shores, including in Southeast Asia. With James Dyson now lounging in a $43-million Singapore penthouse, British firms will be left hoovering up the crumbs of a once-vaunted manufacturing industry – the antithesis to the promise of Brexit.
Man with a plan?
Almost immediately, Boris Johnson outlined his ruthless outlook and single-minded vision for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – sacking half of the cabinet and filling the vacuum with right-wingers and Brexiteers. While Theresa May hoped for some diamond in the rough, Johnson faces defections, resignations and a divided electorate suspicious of his motives. With Priti Patel at Home and Thatcherite Javid as Chancellor, the purge is sure to have ruffled some feathers and increased the odds of an election sooner rather than later. The make-up of the cabinet reveals a lot in terms of intentions, and cements Vote Leave in the corridors of power. But Johnson faces an uphill battle to pass his ultimate plan for the UK through parliament. MPs remain firmly divided on the direction of the country and a series of indicative votes earlier in the year underscored the inability to scrounge together any consensus.
David Cameron, now sheltering in his 25,000-pound shed, should shoulder much of the blame for the current impasse. But ambition and presumption have won the day, with the belief that pushing the country to the brink is a positive result for all concerned. The backers of Brexit now have the position and power to live up to their promise. If getting a deal is so easy, we shouldn’t be waiting much longer.
The state of Downing Street only highlights the travails on the other side of the House. The Labour leadership are mired in a morass of anti-semitism – putting out fires they need not be fighting when the government is facing a crisis unlike any seen in our lifetime. Jeremy Corbyn has floundered in the polls, despite a brief surge in flags and chants at Glastonbury. For more than three years the cannons have been pointing inwards when they should have been squarely aimed at Brexit. Labour is due another ‘Clause 4’ before they can become a real opposition and ultimately wrest the keys to Number 10.
Since 23 June, 2016, and throughout the negotiations, Europe has been consistent in sticking with its red lines and new leadership in Britain is unlikely to see that change. The approach may be different, but the fundamental issues in a country detaching itself from the union remain unresolved.
For the time being, all eyes are on the new resident of Downing Street as he settles in and begins to grapple with a problematic agenda. VNS