Will a new Prime Minister change the Brexit fundamentals?


And so we’re soon going to have a new Prime Minister. By the end of July, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will replace Theresa May as Prime Minister. But what difference will this make when it comes to Brexit? The short answer is, probably not very much at all.

Both candidates for the top job in British politics are promising that they can unblock the Brexit logjam. Mr Johnson plans to scrap the backstop, and, if that proves problematic, withhold the £39 billion exit bill agreed with the European Union. Should all else fail, he will take the UK out of the EU without a deal.

Mr Hunt, for his part, plans to take a whole new team to Brussels, including the European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist Party as a means of winning his own backstop concessions. Then no deal with heavy heart if necessary.

So basically, not much between them. And not in terms of tone either. While one likened the EU to Nazi Germany while the other compared it to the Soviet Union. So take your pick….

And when it comes to the substance of what they are saying, they both seem to be promising something they will, at best, struggle to deliver. Obviously it’s impossible to be definitive about this, as no one knows for certain how the EU will react to a new Prime Minister and his demands. It is just about conceivable that, given a choice between no deal and a revised backstop, there is pressure from within the Union for negotiators to adopt the latter course.

However, this remains a somewhat remote possibility given the insistence of the European Council on the fact that this latest extension to the Article 50 deadline will not involve a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

So then we are, essentially back where we started in November. Our new Prime Minister will face precisely the same choice as his predecessor: leave with a deal, leave with no deal, or don’t leave at all. And, crucially, they will confront the same parliament, a parliament in which there is no obvious majority for any of these three outcomes.

The Speaker, John Bercow, has made it clear he will not allow parliament to be side-lined, and so there is every chance that MPs will stymie any attempt take the UK out with no deal (though this will require a number of Conservatives to risk the wrath of their new leader)

And that new leader will need to make a calculation. Given the lack of a parliamentary majority, it seems likely we will have a General Election before one has to happen in 2022. But when?

Assume, as most people do, that Mr Johnson comes out ahead in the battle for the votes of Conservative members. He will then face a choice. Whatever the planning that precedes a no deal, it is hard to see how a Government can take us into one (assuming he finds a way to ensure parliament does not prevent one) and then win a public vote. Disruption is inevitable.

Trying to get a largely unamended deal through parliament will almost certainly prove as futile as it did for Mrs May. Yet delaying Brexit beyond 31 October risks providing Mr Farage with an early Christmas present.

It is possible, then, that a brave new incumbent of Number 10 might take the plunge, and go to the people asking for a mandate and a parliament to deliver Brexit. It would be a high stakes gamble, but possibly one worth taking. Failing that, it is hard to see beyond the possibility that the last week of October looks awfully like the last week of March. With parliament trying and failing to agree anything while ruling out no deal, and a new Prime Minister having to request still more time from Brussels.

By Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece was originally in Les Echos

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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