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Boris Johnson’s Risky Gambit

Plus: India’s top court takes on Kashmir, how spies recruit on LinkedIn, and other stories we’re following today.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a press conference at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 24.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a press conference at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 24. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Mexico mourns after a mass shooting, Italy gets a new government, and is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson playing 4D chess?

We welcome your feedback at morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.


The Queen’s Speech

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Mexico mourns after a mass shooting, Italy gets a new government, and is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson playing 4D chess?

We welcome your feedback at morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.


The Queen’s Speech

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday acceded to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s push to suspend parliament—a move that seems calculated to bulldoze a path for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, slated for Oct. 31, with or without a deal. The new schedule will limit the number of days legislators have left to change the country’s course before it crashes into the deadline.

And if they do manage to block or delay a no-deal Brexit, Johnson will be able to run an election campaign pitting “the people” against Parliament and attract supporters of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party by portraying himself as the only leader who can deliver Brexit—if they give his Conservative Party a larger majority in the House of Commons.

Why is the queen involved? In a procedure usually considered a formality, the queen must approve any request to prorogue Parliament. The five-week suspension is to be followed by a Queen’s Speech—a chance for the government to outline its agenda, eating up still more legislative time. It is highly unusual, however, for a new prime minister to suspend Parliament before winning a single vote in the House of Commons. Legal challenges have already been filed seeking to reverse the suspension. They will reportedly target Johnson’s request to the queen, rather than her decision to approve it.

How will the suspension affect Brexit? Before resigning, previous Prime Minister Theresa May thrice failed to push a Brexit plan through Parliament. Not wishing to share her fate, Johnson may have concluded that he would not get his way without a bold move to take matters into his own hands. Critics argue the decision violates the spirit of democratic governance—and quite possibly the letter of the law. It also led to the loss of an important Conservative Party colleague. Ruth Davidson, the leader credited with resurrecting the Scottish Tories and an opponent of no-deal Brexit, announced that she would step down on Thursday.

The new schedule could increase the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, which economists say would damage the British economy. By doubling down on the possibility of leaving without a deal, Johnson may have bought himself some bargaining pressure to use in talks with European negotiators, who in seeking to avoid that outcome might capitulate on demands that would help smooth a potential deal’s course through a skeptical Parliament. Given the EU’s repeated insistence that it will not renegotiate the deal, that might not work.

Was it misguided or Machiavellian? Despite all the talk of Downing Street’s Machiavellian cunning, Johnson may have also strengthened his enemies’ hand by proroguing Parliament. After all, the famous Florentine was adamant that when it comes to adversaries, “If you’re going to wound them, make sure they end up dead—or with an injury so great that they can never seek revenge,” Garvan Walshe, who was an advisor to former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, notes in an essay for Foreign Policy.

“In dealing with his political enemies, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has failed the Prince’s test,” he argues. As a result of Johnson’s bombshell announcement, “Parliament is now more likely, not less, to pass legislation thwarting a no-deal exit on Oct. 31, so the government needs to escalate if it is to get out of this mess of its own making,” Walshe contends. Or it could be the first shot fired in an election campaign.

How would an election victory help Johnson? Provoking those who oppose him into “saving him from the near-certain catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit” may ultimately be his goal, Aleks Eror wrote earlier this month in FP. If Johnson wins an election with a comfortable majority he will then be able to disregard the views of the most extreme Brexiteers, including members of the hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, on whom he currently depends.

That would allow Johnson to disregard the DUP’s opposition to the Irish backstop, and clear the way for an agreed Brexit deal with the EU. “In trade terms, this would effectively move the border between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland into the Irish Sea and result in customs checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” Eror explains.

It would throw the DUP under the bus but would appeal to both wings of the Conservative Party, possibly allowing him to win a vote in Parliament and deliver Brexit democratically. “Brexit is, at its core, a manifestation of English nationalism, and its proponents would have few qualms about abandoning Northern Ireland to Brussels if it enables them to achieve their dreams of a buccaneering, post-Brexit England powered by the winds of deregulation and free trade,” Eror argues.


What We’re Following Today

Italy gets a new coalition government. The populist Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party have agreed to form a joint administration, with Giuseppe Conte to retain the role of prime minister, set to serve through 2023. Conte formally accepted the invitation to form a new administration on Thursday morning. Obstacles still remain, including party-level approval processes and cabinet negotiations. The new coalition is positioning itself to counter the rise of the country’s far-right after the nationalist League party’s Matteo Salvini failed in his bid to trigger an election and win the premiership. “It turns out that his gamble had a fatal flaw,” the BBC’s James Reynolds pointed out. “The League Party’s leader did not count on the possibility of his opponents teaming up to stop him.”

Mexico in mourning. Alleged gang members locked the doors to a bar in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, and began shooting, leaving 26 people dead and many others injured, officials said Wednesday. “This is the most inhuman thing possible,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, responding to the worst act of violence the country had seen since he took office last year. Mexico has experienced record violence this year, with 14,603 homicides registered as of June.

Yemeni government forces retake Aden. Fighters loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government claim to have retaken the strategically vital port city of Aden from United Arab Emirates-backed separatists who seized it earlier this month. The conflict tore open a rift in a coalition previously united against Iran-backed Houthi rebel forces. The differences it exposed between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not going away, however, and could impact U.S. policy in the region, Alexandra Stark argues in FP.


For news and analysis on the world’s most populous and fastest-growing regions, sign up for FP’s new weekly newsletters: South Asia Brief, delivered on Tuesdays, and China Brief, delivered on Wednesdays.


Keep an Eye On

Myanmar to join maritime drills. Despite U.S. sanctions levied against Myanmar’s top military leaders over the country’s brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims, the country’s navy is set to participate in drills alongside U.S. ships this coming week. “The sanctions imposed were personal and this exercise is a coordination between [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the U.S.,” Zaw Min Tun, a Myanmar government spokesperson, told AFP.

Kashmir goes to court. India’s highest judicial body has agreed to hear challenges  to the government’s decision to strip the Kashmir region’s autonomy and impose draconian restrictions there to head off unrest. The court rejected the government’s view that it should not have to put together a notice explaining its position for fear that the United Nations or Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir, might cite it.

Does banning plastic bags work? Kenya’s government says 80 percent of people in the country have stopped using plastic bags since they became illegal in 2017. The policy has faced challenges, including bag smuggling and the proliferation of shoddy alternatives that are theoretically recyclable but single use in practice, the BBC reports. But Nancy Githaiga, the World Wildlife Fund Kenya’s policy and research manager, said the reduction in litter was noticeable. And the idea is spreading: 127 nations have now banned or taxed plastic bags.


Odds and Ends

LinkedIn may be the social network with the fewest redeeming features. But journalists have long known that it can be a secret weapon, good for at least one thing: Finding sources willing to share sensitive information about opaque institutions. China’s government, it seems, has figured that out as well. Chinese agents have been approaching former U.S. intelligence officials on LinkedIn with some success, the Atlantic reports, using professional language followed up with cash offers.

Despite its allusive title, Call Sign Chaos, the new book by James Mattis, U.S. President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, only mentions Trump four times. An NPR reviewer calls that decision “maddening.”


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 Twitter: @bsoloway

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