Since taking office last month, the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been thrust firmly in at the deep end of the country’s most destabilizing political crisis in living memory. The ongoing Brexit saga, which began in the summer of 2016 when the U.K. narrowly voted to leave the European Union, now looks set to reach a dramatic crescendo under Johnson’s leadership.
In adopting a far more Eurosceptic and less pragmatic position than his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson has taken on the challenge of ensuring that “leave means leave.” This is an outcome that many Brexiteers have increasingly feared would not happen after the original departure date of March 29 was extended earlier this year.
Yet after purging May’s Cabinet of various resistant “remainers” who were skeptical of Brexit, Johnson and his ministerial allies appear to have grown impatient with the prolonged negotiations with Brussels and have further dismissed renegotiating the current deal that Europe offered the May government.
Johnson’s Conservative administration has instead swiftly embraced the more provocative prospect of pursuing a “No Deal” departure on October 31. While this would fulfill the democratic outcome demanded by the 52 percent who voted to leave, it is an end-game option laced with practical risk and potential disaster, and which could ultimately make or break Johnson’s political reputation.
Brexit Without Deal
Critics of Brexit claim that when Johnson and others were arguing to leave the E.U. in 2016, they did not indicate that a “No Deal” departure was the likely outcome. Indeed, there are multiple examples of leave campaigners stating that the country would explicitly not leave without a mutually agreed deal to determine future trading and political relations with the E.U. bloc.
Influenced by his key Eurosceptic adviser Dominic Cummings (the man who spearheaded the 2016 Vote Leave campaign), Johnson’s Brexit strategy offers a markedly different direction to what has gone before. Following almost three years of frustrated talks, leaving without a deal has now emerged as the most likely outcome, with its advocates arguing that Britain would survive and then flourish after any initial instability caused.
However, opponents of this option claim it has the potential to cause major disruption to the U.K.’s external trading links and the broader economy, putting many jobs and businesses at risk. The Johnson government has dismissed such predictions as a lingering part of “Project Fear,” which they claim was a tactic employed to frighten people into voting remain in 2016.
Some believe that Johnson is playing a metaphorical game of high-stakes poker with the E.U., and is waiting for them to back down over the controversial issue of the Northern Irish backstop, which has proved to be a key obstacle in negotiations.
Johnson and his allies believe that the E.U. cannot risk a “No Deal” either, and will offer a revised deal as October 31 starts to emerge more closely on the horizon. It is a massive risk to assume the E.U. will blink, and if a “No Deal” outcome materializes in October, the U.K. will suddenly lose access to the world’s biggest single market that happens to be located on its geographical doorstep.
While talk of future lucrative trade deals with the U.S., China, and various other global powers have been promised by Brexit supporters, these are not yet in place and may be some years from agreement, while there is also no guarantee that they will provide the same economic opportunities as membership of the E.U. does.
Breaking the Gridlock
Prime Minister Johnson, conscious of determined opposition to a “No Deal” Brexit within some of his own M.P.s and across Parliament as a whole, is ultimately faced by the same parliamentary arithmetic as May, principally that he lacks a parliamentary majority. There is also no majority in Parliament for either the EU’s proposed deal or a no-deal settlement.
The referendum result must be respected.
We will leave the EU on 31st October. #LeaveOct31
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 15, 2019
Consequently, he has pledged to employ drastic measures to break this gridlock, primarily by threatening to suspend Parliament to allow Brexit to be delivered. Johnson argues that the referendum mandate of 2016 transcends any assertions of Parliament’s powers. However, there remain some key constitutional disagreements over this, and legal challenges to this controversial proposal are ongoing.
It ultimately raises fears of emerging dictatorial government powers, while also threatening to undermine the very concept of parliamentary sovereignty that Brexiteers have been so keen to reclaim from the European Union.
Johnson’s ‘Nuclear Option’
In the meantime, everyday politics appears to be in paralysis, while the country remains as polarized as it was when it voted 52-48 percent in 2016, with leavers and remainers more entrenched in their positions and unwilling to compromise.
Johnson ultimately retains a final “nuclear option” to fall back on, namely that if Parliament does block his proposals, he could call an early general election and make a “No Deal Brexit” his core proposal. While this represents another risk and would fracture a divided country even further, his strategy is based on the fact that he could feasibly win a clear majority of M.P.s for his Conservative Party in adopting such a position.
This would involve appealing exclusively to the 52 percent of leave voters, with the calculation that if such numbers voted for him, it would secure a fresh five-year term in office and the authority to finally bring the Brexit saga to a decisive end.
Critics have said that this would not be the end by any means and that a new wave of more extreme disruption and turmoil will only just have begun as the country struggles to deal with the initial aftershock of E.U. departure.
Time will tell, but as the revised Brexit departure date ticks down to the end of October, both Johnson and the country’s uncertain destiny awaits.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.