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20 October, 2019  ▪  Michael Binyon

Boris Johnson and apocalypse

What economic and political challenges are threatening the new UK Prime Minister

Boris Johnson has arrived like a bombshell. The new British Prime Minister has lost no time in stamping his authority on the government. A day after taking over, he sacked most of Theresa May’s ministers, including the foreign secretary and the finance minister. He replaced them with right-wingers committed to Brexit, bringing in hardline ideologues to savage Conservative rebels fighting Brexit. And he has promised that Britain will leave the European Union by October 31, “do or die”.

To many people, including the angry and frustrated European Union leaders, it looks as though the option will be “die” rather than “do”. They said they will not reopen negotiations, nor get rid of the special provisions on the Irish border, the main issue holding up a deal. They have dismissed Mr Johnson as deluded, confrontational and not a serious politician. And they now fear that Britain will crash out of the EU without any deal on trade, borders or regulations and without paying its promised £39 billion divorce settlement.

The new Johnson government has begun emergency preparations for a bitter divorce in the autumn. More than £1 billion has been promised to help farmers who will not be able to sell their food abroad. Industry will be given huge sums to stockpile vital spare parts. Emergency supplies of medicines are being brought in from Europe in case of shortages. Vast new car parks are being set up near Britain’s ports to cope with all the trucks that will be stranded waiting for customs clearance. The country is being put almost on a war footing.

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But the opposition to such a doomsday scenario is growing. Conservative opponents of a no-deal Brexit are now preparing to block it in Parliament, promising to join the opposition Labour and other parties in voting against any move to leave the EU without a formal agreement with Brussels. This is a real threat, as the Conservative party now has a majority of only one seat. Last week it lost a by-election to the opposition Liberal Democrats, who snatched a formerly safe Conservative seat in Wales. There are at least 20 Conservatives ready to defy Johnson; if only two vote against a no-deal Brexit, his plans collapse.

 Johnson is a fighter, however, and is proposing measures that would cause an immediate constitutional crisis. His aides say he may refuse to resign if he is defeated in Parliament. That would force the Queen to intervene and dismiss him – a move that would severely embarrass the 93-year-old monarch. Aides also say he could simply dismiss Parliament or send members all on an extended holiday. That would also be a massive assault on British democracy. As critics point out, the last time this happened was in 1629, when King Charles I dismissed Parliament and ruled alone. This led to a three-year civil war which the king lost. He was beheaded and the monarchy was abolished. Johnson is unlikely to risk such a move again.

With only a tiny majority, the government may soon be forced to call a new general election. This could have unforeseen consequences. The two-party mould of British politics has been broken. The ruling Conservatives are deeply unpopular and might lose many seats. But the Opposition, led by the elderly left-wing Marxist Jeremy Corbyn, is even more unpopular and is deeply split over accusations that senior figures in the party are institutionally anti-Semitic. The Labour party came fourth in the Welsh by-election – a disastrous result. Instead, two small parties would gain: the anti-Brexit centrist Liberal Democrats, and the far-right Brexit party which is winning support by insisting it will stick to the October 31st deadline to leave the EU. A coalition between any of these groups would be unworkable.

Johnson insists he has no plans for an immediate elections. But his actions speak otherwise. He has been touring all round the country, trying to drum up support and preaching the gospel of optimism and determination. He has visited Scotland, Wales and distant cities and has promised huge sums of money to counter the effects of austerity. He has promised a massive injection of £1.8 billion for the health service, an extra 20,000 police to fight knife crime, more money for housing and immediate help for local councils to strengthen decaying social services. There is no indication where this extra money will come from. No new taxes have been announced. Critics say this will either bankrupt the country or force massive new borrowing and reverse years of austerity to reduce the national debt.

His hard line on Brexit, however, has especially angered the Scots, who largely voted in 2016 to remain in the EU. The Scottish Nationalists, in power in Edinburgh, are new preparing for a second referendum on Scottish independence. This time, the polls suggest, they may do better if the UK government forces Scotland as well as England to leave the EU without a deal. Scottish independence and a breakup of the United Kingdom would face Johnson with an unprecedented challenge to Britain’s integrity and economic survival.

 Johnson is hoping to use his good relations with the Trump administration to win support from Washington for Brexit and for a new trade deal with America to offset the disruption to British exports to the EU. Britain has sided with America in sending warships to the Gulf to protect oil tankers liable to be seized by Iran. The new prime minister has also offered strong support for America in its quarrel with China over trade. But senior figures in Washington have said that Johnson is “delusional” if he thinks he can get a good new trade deal with the US. America always negotiates in its own interests, and would have far more bargaining power over Britain once it alone and without the support of its EU partners.

Johnson has the advantage of his energy, enthusiasm and determination not to be defeated by political challenges. He has also recognised that the government needs to begin an urgent programme of social reform. Many issues – housing, transport, infrastructure, social care and defence – have been neglected during the three years of Mrs May’s government, as she was preoccupied with Brexit. There is now a lot of public anger over rising knife crime, the lack of housing and the crumbling National Health Service.

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The new prime minister has promised immediate action to deal with these domestic issues. But his danger is that he has surrounded himself with far-right populist politicians who are ideologically opposed to state help for social programmes. The liberals in his own party dislike and distrust him, and believe the Conservatives are moving too far to the right, deepening social divisions in the country. Open quarrels between liberals and Brexiteers in the party are becoming increasingly bitter, and the party may well split over the issue. This would probably keep it out of power for a generation.

Most Britons are fed up with the rows over Brexit. They are angry over what they see as Britain’s new weakness, its loss of influence and the increase in social issues at home: rising crime, drugs, gangs, poor schools and health issues such as obesity. A younger generation believes the government is out of touch and not doing enough on such issues as climate change and new protests are being held every week. There is a general sense of disillusion with politics. It will take all Johnson’s energy and wit to restore a sense of direction for Britain and find some acceptable way of dealing with Brexit.  

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