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24 Jul 2019

Politics and Society


Boris Johnson has achieved the nearest thing possible to his boyhood dream of becoming ‘world king’. In his bid to take over from Theresa May as Prime Minister, he sought to reach out to the Conservative membership at large with an optimistic vision of a post-Brexit Britain, underpinned by a ‘do or die’ pledge to take the UK out of the European Union on 31 October. Indeed to the delight of party members, the majority of whom support a hard Brexit at almost any cost (apart from letting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10), Johnson has left the no deal option firmly on the table.

Yet, whilst many Conservatives have welcomed Johnson’s positivity, there is a distinct lack of detail as to exactly how he will achieve what eluded his predecessor and ultimately brought about her downfall. Certainly, Johnson is an effective orator (although many will have cringed when he proclaimed that ‘Dude! We are going to energise the country!’), but soundbites are not policy, and Conservative Association members are not the country at large.

In the coming weeks Johnson will be forced to set out the specifics of his Brexit strategy.

Throughout the leadership campaign, he swerved a number of key questions, but now there will be nowhere to hide.

On what basis will the new Prime Minister seek to negotiate with the EU27, given that EU negotiators continue to signal their unwillingness to re-visit the Withdrawal Agreement? Is the Brexit or bust platform on which he campaigned an absolute red line, or once in office will Johnson adopt a more pragmatic stance? And how exactly will he gain the support of Parliament for a renegotiated deal, or even no deal, given that it has so far rejected both options? Indeed, given that he has not explicitly ruled out proroguing Parliament as a means of achieving his ‘do or die’ commitment, will Parliament actually be afforded an opportunity to approve the final outcome?

Setting aside the constitutional crises that the latter would provoke (which in any case has been made harder by anti-prorogation amendments to the Northern Ireland Bill), these questions take on even more urgency because, like his predecessor, the new Prime Minister is perilously low on two vital resources: time and support.

At the time of writing there are, at most, 25 scheduled parliamentary sitting days. Whilst this may shield Johnson from the immediate threat of a no-confidence motion, it also provides limited opportunity for scrutiny and for a consensus in the House to be found (assuming that the ‘nuclear button’ of prorogation is not pressed). This is likely to engender frustrations on both sides of the House, and over the summer the government will almost certainly face mounting pressure to recall the House to allow it sufficient time to grill the Prime Minister at the dispatch box.

And now to Brussels. Here too, the institutions of the EU are about to wind down for the summer. The Parliament is next due to meet in its plenary session on 16 September and the next summit of the Council is scheduled for 17-18 October. Whilst it is the Commission that will lead on any renegotiations (and Michel Barnier has pledged to work ‘constructively’ with the new PM), any changes to the deal will require the support of the former institutions; and if such support is not immediately forthcoming, the prospect of a default no deal becomes increasingly likely.

It is worth noting that there is about to be a change of leadership at the heart of the EU, as Ursula von der Leyen replaces Jean-Claude Junker as President of the European Commission. In her acceptance speech, von der Leyen said that she is ‘ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason’; and in an interview has warned of the ‘massively negative consequences’ of a no deal Brexit. Yet whilst this appears to leave the door open ,she does not officially assume her new role until 1 November.

As for support: unlike some his predecessors, Johnson enjoys the backing of the majority of MPs and association members in roughly equal proportions. However, the party that he leads remains fundamentally divided, and he will need somehow to bridge these competing factions in order to galvanise the support necessary to deliver Brexit (again, assuming no prorogation). Johnson will appoint his cabinet over the coming days, providing an important opportunity to bring a range of opinions inside the tent.

However, even before Johnson’s victory was announced, many senior Conservatives publicly expressed their unwillingness to serve under him, whilst pledging to do all that they can from the backbenches to block a no deal Brexit. With the Conservatives’ working majority being whittled down in recent months to just two, Johnson can ill-afford such discontent on his own backbenches. Indeed, this working majority is set to be eroded further following next week’s by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire; and at the same time, the DUP are seeking to extract further concessions for their ongoing support.

So what exactly does this mean for the prospects of the Johnson government? It is not impossible to hold onto office in such circumstances. Indeed, John Major’s government limped along for a full five years between 1992-1997 in very similar circumstances, even surviving a (self-instigated) a motion of confidence to secure support for the Maastricht Treaty. However, there is a vast difference between being in office and being in power, and Johnson may find himself under pressure to break the deadlock by calling a general election. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that his ‘best hope of survival is gambling everything on going to the country’.

Polling data, however, may suggest otherwise. Since the European Parliament elections in May, both the Conservatives and Labour regularly receive the support of less than a quarter of those polled, as the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party have surged ahead. And Johnson himself remains incredibly divisive, with just 31% of those polled holding a favourable opinion of him, with his appeal being particularly (but unsurprisingly) low amongst Remain supporters.

Whilst holding a snap election may be Johnson’s best chance of defeating a Labour party led Corbyn (who has suffered his own collapse of support), he is unlikely to regain the majority squandered by May in 2017. And in likely the event of a hung Parliament, a Johnson-led Conservative Party may find themselves with insufficient allies in the House on whom to rely for support, rendering the prospect of a deal with the Brexit Party a distinct possibility, despite claims to the contrary.

Yet whilst this may be an attractive short-term strategy for a PM determined to hold onto power, such an alliance would pose an existential threat to the Conservative Party, alienating Remain supporters and moderate Leavers alike. This leaves a final question: what is Johnson willing sacrifice at the altar of prime ministerial power?

By Dr Felicity Matthews, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

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