Dispatch

Johnson Shifts His Political Calculations on Brexit

The prime minister now expects there will be a delay, but he thinks voters will reward him at the polls for trying.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson following his keynote speech at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, on Oct. 2.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson following his keynote speech at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, on Oct. 2. Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool /Getty Images

LONDON—After nearly two months of government promises that unspecified “workable proposals” and fresh “technological solutions” for Brexit were being prepared, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally put his cards on the table Wednesday, revealing his new deal to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. His plan was promptly laughed out of Brussels and Belfast, and it quickly became clear that Johnson is playing a political game that is focused on something entirely different.

His target appears to be the snap general election all parties expect to take place in the immediate aftermath of Halloween, the deadline for the U.K. to leave the European Union. “Everything that Boris has done is focused 100 percent on winning that election,” said one former member of Johnson’s cabinet. The prime minister and his Conservative allies are cautiously optimistic that, even if their plans for Brexit are rejected, their hell-for-leather strategy of demanding it at all costs will put them in good stead for an election victory, despite the near-inevitability of a Brexit delay. 

Until recently, Johnson’s mantra had been that “extension means extinction”—in other words, that failing to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 would mean a clobbering at the polls from the Brexit Party, which came out on top in May’s EU parliamentary elections on a single message of taking Britain out of the EU with no deal at all. Ever since that debacle—which saw the Conservatives relegated to a humiliating fifth place—Johnson’s strategy has been single-mindedly aimed at regaining potential Conservative voters from the Brexit party. 

But over the last few days, the thinking at No. 10 Downing St. seems to have shifted, said the former cabinet minister. There is now more confidence that Johnson can pass blame for an extension onto Brussels and a Remainer-dominated Parliament and win an election on “a ‘only we can get Brexit done’ message,” he said. “I think they’re pricing in an extension. There isn’t going to be a no-deal Brexit,” on Oct. 31, despite Johnson’s public claims that he’s ready to walk away without any deal if Brussels rejects his latest proposals.

On Wednesday, Johnson’s new proposal for a last-ditch new deal for Britain’s departure from the EU was quickly condemned by both Northern Irish politicians and EU officials as in “bad faith” and “unworkable”—making a major showdown between Johnson and an opposition-dominated House of Commons all but inevitable. If Johnson fails to strike a deal with Brussels, Parliament has ruled that he must seek an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU. Johnson has repeatedly vowed that he will not do so, promising that he will deliver Brexit, “do or die,” even if that means leaving the EU without a deal. 

Essentially, the Johnson plan proposes introducing border checks between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, after a transition period that ends in 2025. Between 2020 and 2025, Northern Ireland would remain inside the EU’s customs union while the rest of the U.K. leaves it, effectively creating an internal border between Northern Ireland and the mainland of the U.K. Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney immediately shot down the idea, saying that “customs checks on the island of Ireland” could not “be the basis of an agreement” and that the proposal was in “bad faith given the commitments the British government has given both to Ireland and the EU over the last three years.” 

Though Johnson had persuaded Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party—parliamentary allies of the Conservatives—to lend cautious support for the plan, politicians across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum were quick to condemn it. “Unworkable … these are farcical proposals and in no way serious,” said Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, while Reg Empey, of the Ulster Unionist Party, rejected the idea of Northern Ireland being “in a different relationship with the EU to the rest of the U.K.”

Moreover, the chances of Brussels accepting the Johnson deal at an upcoming EU summit meeting on Oct. 17 is “less than zero,” said one senior U.K. official. “Everyone knew that obviously there would be nothing new to discuss … the only surprising thing about today is how polite the Europeans are pretending to be about taking [the Johnson plan] seriously.” Though in truth at least one top European official could barely keep a straight face—the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt was pictured Wednesday crying with laughter as he read the text of Johnson’s letter on his mobile phone in the Parliament chamber. 

But the real crunch will come once the EU formally rejects the plan. Under a law passed last month in the wake of a parliamentary rebellion which saw Johnson’s Conservative Party decisively lose its fragile majority, Johnson must ask the EU for more time to strike a deal. That leaves him with four choices. He can either choose to openly defy Parliament—effectively breaking the law and forcing his opponents to remove him through a vote of no confidence. He can try to find a loophole that allows him to wriggle out of the legislation. He can resign rather than comply. Or he can reluctantly bow to Parliament’s will, blaming the EU for its intransigence in rejecting his new proposals and blaming the opposition for thwarting the “will of the people” to leave, as expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum result. 

Conservative Party insiders say there’s a spirited debate going on in Johnson’s circle about exactly which course of action will play best with the electorate. But whatever choice the premier makes will be directed at maximizing his chances in an election.

Publicly, the government’s line is that “this government will not negotiate a [Brexit] delay,” according to press briefings by senior Downing Street officials—who have also emphasized that “the EU is obliged by EU law only to negotiate with member state governments.” That’s a clear warning to Parliament not to attempt to bypass Johnson and appeal directly to the EU for an extension on their own account. In essence, says the former cabinet minister, Johnson’s message to Parliament is, “if you want an extension [to the Brexit deadline] you’re going to do it yourselves over my dead body.”

There’s method in Johnson’s do-or-die strategy. The last month has brought unprecedented political turmoil—including allegations of improper channeling of public funds by a woman to whom Johnson was personally close while serving as mayor of London and a ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court overturning the government’s attempt to suspend Parliament for five weeks as illegal. But despite the battering, Johnson’s Conservatives have held on to an impressive 34 percent approval rating—with the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats at 23 percent and Labour, traditionally the main opposition party, at just 21 percent after the party refused to take a pro- or anti-Brexit stand. 

Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favors the single leading party—and the Conservatives’ impressive poll numbers mean that “there’s been a lot more optimism” among activists at this week’s Party Conference, says the former cabinet minister, that they “can go to the country and actually win.” But the major obstacle to Conservative hopes remains the single-issue Brexit Party.

Certainly Johnson, in a barnstorming keynote speech Wednesday, directed his main anger—and his best trademark comic lines—at Parliament rather than at the EU. If Parliament were a school, the state regulator would be “shutting it down,” Johnson said, adding that the British people had more say over the phone-in show I’m a Celebrity than over the actions of the House of Commons. Johnson also promised a package of crowd-pleasing spending splurges on health care and the police, while his home secretary proudly announced that the Conservatives would “end the free movement of people once and for all”—a key concern of Brexit Party voters. 

In the lead-up to the Oct. 17 summit, both Johnson and the EU will be at pains to pretend that the other side is to blame for the coming train wreck. But in Westminster, Britain’s opposition parties are facing an equally tough conundrum: how to force Johnson to obey the law and request an extension, and, if he refuses, exactly how to force him out without damaging their own electoral prospects. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn would, as head of the queen’s loyal opposition, customarily be the leading candidate to lead a post-Johnson interim government. However, now that the Liberal Democrats are polling higher than Labour and even hope ultimately to replace Labour as the main opposition, backing even a temporary Corbyn government is likely to cost them dearly at the polls. “We don’t want to be in a position where people are thinking, vote Lib Dem, get Corbyn,” said a senior party source. 

Johnson may face humiliation in Brussels and ongoing defeats in the Commons. But he has, at least, hit on a simple and effective political message—Get Brexit Done—for the coming political maelstrom that his opponents have so far been unable to match.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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