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Posted at: Sep 8, 2019, 7:37 AM; last updated: Sep 8, 2019, 8:49 AM (IST)

Boris Johnson: Between a rock & a hard place

Ashis Ray
BY INVITATION
Ashis Ray
Consistency is not one of Johnson’s strengths; but entertaining speeches have certainly characterised his career. Yet, none of his addresses since becoming Prime Minister has lived up to his standards
Boris Johnson: Between a rock & a hard place
Testing Times: The past week has been particularly debilitating for the British PM. AFP

Ashis Ray

ON Monday, Boris Johnson, who has been British Prime Minister for less than seven weeks, has threatened to table a Bill for a second time in the House of Commons to call a general election. Since an Act promulgating a fixed term of five years for a government came into existence in the United Kingdom in 2010, it requires a two-thirds majority to trigger a mid-term poll. Johnson is unlikely to secure this.

He would, thus, be left with three choices. To eat humble pie by ruling out Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) without an agreement, since he has been adamant about splitting — deal or no-deal. To resign as prime minister. Or reach concurrence with the EU to withdraw in an orderly manner. On Thursday, he said he would rather die in a ditch than extend the date of exiting. On Friday, he said he would go to Brussels and get a deal.

Consistency is not one of Johnson’s strengths; but entertaining speeches have certainly characterised his career. Yet, none of his addresses since becoming Prime Minister has lived up to his standards. When he was expected to sound prime ministerial after being invited to form a government by the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, he opted to embark on electioneering. His subsequent performances — whether in parliament, or elsewhere — have been untypically uninspiring.  

Johnson’s great inspiration has been Britain’s heroic war-time prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, whose biography he wrote during his chequered career as a journalist. But the rock that steadied him was his half-Indian barrister wife Marina Wheeler, with whom he was married for 25 years before the couple divorced a year ago. The absence of her sobering influence and now with his brother Jo resigning as minister in his government, he has been dealt a body blow. He has unsurprisingly floundered and appeared subdued.

The past week has been particularly debilitating for Johnson. Backbench MPs in the Commons, under emergency and special provisions, took control of business in the House and passed a binding Bill proscribing a no-deal split with the EU. The House of Lords thereafter ratified it. In effect, this is legislation bar the Queen’s assent, which is generally a formality.

But the unthinkable is doing the rounds. That Johnson could disobey the law. So, amid this impression, the opposition has dug in and indicated it will not facilitate an election until Johnson has categorically communicated to the EU that no-deal is off the table and the point of leaving is extended to at least January 31.

The main opposition, the Labour party, has an ultra-left-wing, almost unelectable leader in Jeremy Corbyn. That, though, does not mean Johnson will win by default. Even if the Conservatives sustain their overall lead over Labour in percentage terms, they could be denied victory in crucial seats by the staunch anti-Europe Brexit party eating into their votes. If Johnson enters into an electoral alliance with this party, which is seen in some political circles to be neo-fascist, the Conservatives could severely haemorrhage votes to the centrist pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged Johnson to produce a technological solution within 30 days to nullify a hard border between Northern Ireland (which is a part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is a member state of the EU) — a major sticking point. This was plastered over with a proposal of a “back-stop” (which has been anathema to British nationalists, including Johnson) or a customs border, literally in the middle of the Irish Sea, which separates the Irish isles from mainland Britain.

Johnson picked up the gauntlet. To do otherwise would have amounted to a public admission of an empty hand. However, the time limit to provide a credible response expires on September 20. It would be stunning if he meets this, indeed even succeeds in doing so by the next crucial summit of EU heads of government on October 17.

On the other hand, if Johnson, to maintain his pledge of an exit by October 31 and to avoid a resignation, reverts to the withdrawal agreement brokered by his predecessor Theresa May — which he vehemently rejected — amends the edges to the satisfaction of his Conservative MPs and Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party ally, it would still be a matter of conjecture if the opposition will support him.

Labour had hitherto demanded the retention of a customs union with the EU. Besides, now that it has Johnson on the ropes and the Conservatives deeply divided, it could, with its new-found partners in the Scottish National Party and the Lib Dems, go for the jugular.

— The writer is a London-based senior journalist

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