Second Prime Minister Falls Victim to Brexit. How Long Will the Third Last?
The third prime minister since the Brexit vote has taken office in the UK. David Cameron resigned after losing the referendum on the UK’s EU membership. Theresa May was spared a fight on her way to Number 10 after her opponent withdrew her candidacy. As a result, the leadership contest was over before Conservative Party members were due to cast their ballots, and was limited to several rounds of votes by Conservative MPs. Therefore May was expected to call a snap election in order to have a popular mandate for her job. However, she had no desire to play “political games,” as she put it, when her approval ratings were at their highest. She did call an election one year later, barely keeping her job.
This is now the second time a prime minister has resigned over Brexit. Political infighting in Britain has reached such a level of intensity that speculation on the possibility of a snap election started even before Boris Johnson took office as the new prime minister, and went far beyond the moral obligation of a new prime minister to receive a mandate from the entire country rather than from Tory members .
The third prime minister, Boris Johnson, inherited all the problems that Theresa May was unable to solve. Just like his predecessor, who insisted in her first statements that “Brexit means Brexit,” the new prime minister was quick to draw red lines, backing himself into a corner. In fact, Boris Johnson promised to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 “come what may.” For two years, Theresa May maintained a balance between remain and leave supporters in an attempt to preserve at least the appearance of unity within the Conservative Party and gain parliamentary approval for a deal she negotiated with Brussels, but in vain. Now her successor has only three months before Britain leaves the EU, and the backstop issue (border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) will continue to haunt Boris Johnson. In fact, he has promised to “throw out” the backstop, hoping that technology will ensure transparency at the border and that a quick free trade deal can be agreed with Brussels after the withdrawal from the EU. What Johnson is trying to do is force Brussels to give up on the backstop arrangement by threatening a no deal and refusing to pay the 39 billion pounds to the EU promised by Theresa May under earlier agreed financial commitments. However, the EU has not changed its official position whereby it does not intend to open the deal for renegotiation and is committed to defend the interests of Ireland as one of its member countries. No deal means that there will be no transition period or further talks with London.
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU without a deal could signal the disintegration of the United Kingdom. Scotland will seek to hold another independence referendum. On the first day of the new cabinet, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales sent a joint message to Johnson saying that the consequences of a “chaotic no-deal exit” would “be catastrophic for all parts of the UK.” Feeling a threat to the country’s integrity, the Democratic Unionist Party (Northern Ireland) may withdraw its support from the Tories. The Ulster Unionist Party did not support May’s deal because it did not remove the strategic risk that a customs border along the Irish Sea would sever the region from the rest of the UK. DUP leader Arlene Foster said that while Brexiteers were focused on Brexit, the DUP prioritized the integrity of the UK and single conditions across the country.
It has to be noted that Boris Johnson’s minority government relies on the agreement with the DUP, and together they command a majority of just two MPs. Moreover, in a series of indicative votes at Westminster this spring, the parliament rejected all possible options such as having a third vote on May’s deal, holding a second referendum on relations with the EU, creating a customs union or having a no deal. Not only did party discipline crumble during these votes within both Conservative and Labour ranks, but there was even disunity within May’s Cabinet with some of its members voting against the government.
Judging by Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet, the government will be faced with even greater collective responsibility. The post of Foreign Secretary and de-facto deputy PM went to Dominic Raab, a prominent Brexiteer who served as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in Theresa May’s government and resigned in protest at her agreement with Brussels. Johnson’s Cabinet also counts quite a few members of the European Research Group, an association of Conservative MPs supporting Brexit. At the same time, 17 former members of May’s Cabinet moved to the backbench. They firmly oppose no deal, and are ready to join the opposition in a no confidence vote against Johnson’s Cabinet or even to become Liberal Democrats.
Leader of the Official Opposition Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will table a motion of no confidence as soon as he is sure that it will succeed. Johnson has to solve the backstop issue before the end of August, since parliament will be in recess until September 3. There is a high probability of a snap election, although it will hardly heal the divisions in parliament or in society, unless Johnson secures a better deal for the UK. As a matter of fact, due to Britain’s majority system, the two leading parties are forced to act as umbrella parties uniting both leave and remain supporters. This, however, has eroded their support, boosting the popularity of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and reviving the Liberal Democrats who had a clear position on whether to support or oppose Brexit. Seeking to attract voters, the Conservative Party shifted toward Brexit, while Labour is dominated by remainers, although neither can claim to be united. If a snap election takes place before the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, this will create yet another hung parliament with persisting divisions within parties. Boris Johnson intends to call a snap election after Brexit, with the aim of winning support from voters tired of the uncertainty and also hoping that Farage’s party will lose its historic mission.
There is no doubt that Brexit will be a top foreign policy priority for the new prime minister. Johnson’s government will continue to expand its ties with non-EU countries, as well as bilateral relations with EU members in keeping with the Theresa May’s Global Britain strategy. If Johnson’s track record is anything to go by (what he did rather than said,) there will be no change for the better in London’s position on Russia. However, the UK’s foreign policy largely depends on Washington, so it is still possible if Donald Trump seeks to establish a working relationship with Russia, while London pursues a trade deal with the US. At the same time, blatant propaganda against Russia has become so widespread in the UK (also through the efforts of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary), that it would be impossible for the country to improve its relations with Russia overnight. That said, the new prime minister may not have enough time to gradually build up dialogue with Russia, given the likelihood of a snap election.