What Next, Boris?

Boris Johnson, leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, leaves a private reception in central London, England, July 23, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Britain’s new prime minister may be headed toward an early general election whether he likes it or not.

In his victory speech, the newly elected Tory leader and British prime minister, Boris Johnson, reiterated his campaign slogan: deliver Brexit, unite the country, defeat Jeremy Corbyn. That spells “dud” — ho ho — so Johnson added an extra “e” for good measure.

“DUDE!” he said. “We are going to ENERGIZE the country!”

Great, dude! But, as always, how?

One can forgive Johnson’s optimistic outburst. He had just beaten his rival Jeremy Hunt two-to-one. With 66 percent of the vote share, Johnson secured the largest majority by any leader of a political party since 2005. And prime minister has been Johnson’s dream role since childhood.

However, winning the Tory-party leadership contest was the easy part.

Johnson has inherited an almost fatally precarious parliamentary majority. Out of 639 voting MPs, the government needs 320 to secure a majority. There are currently 312 conservatives, plus ten MPs from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who are lending their support. In other words, the government has a working majority of just two MPs. One of whom has just been suspended from the party pending an investigation into sexual misconduct.

Being reliant on the DUP for support comes with problems of its own. The Irish backstop — an ostensibly temporary customs union and non-negotiable condition of the EU’s withdrawal agreement with Theresa May — is loathed by the DUP, largely owing to the effect it would have on the integrity of the union. The DUP is, rightly, fearful that under this arrangement, Northern Ireland would be treated under a separate regulatory system from the rest of the U.K.

However, both the EU and the Republic of Ireland insist that the backstop is essential in order to prevent a return to a hard border in Ireland. The Irish question was one of the main deadlocks that Theresa May found herself in when trying to secure a deal. And just as it was for May, it will be impossible for Johnson to please everyone.

So, given the fragility of the numbers, whose approval should he prioritize? And what happens if he loses his majority? Answering these questions requires going back to basics. As always, there are only two kinds of Brexit.

1. A deal.

This would need to be negotiated between the British government and the EU and gain Parliament’s approval. Which is back to square one with the numbers problem.

In other words, Johnson is now tasked with achieving in 100 days what Theresa May was unable to achieve in three years. An added pressure is that Johnson has promised that Britain will leave the EU by the next deadline — October 31 — “do or die.” Which doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

Will he be able to get a better deal than May? And if he can’t do much better, will he be a better parliamentary salesman? Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, promptly extended an invitation to talk with Johnson after his victory. Time will tell.

2. No deal.

Simply put, no deal means leaving without the EU’s say-so. But no deal without the backing of Parliament is another thing entirely. Yesterday MPs voted to block the government from proroguing Parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit.

The Remainer Tory ministers of the “rebel alliance,” including the former chancellor of exchequer and justice secretary, have indicated that they are willing to vote to bring down the government if that is what is required to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Johnson has since had private meetings with this cabal in an attempt to dissuade them. But that’s unlikely to be enough. The Times of London reports that “pro-European backbenchers believe as many as 20 Tory MPs could vote to bring down Mr Johnson’s government if he attempts to force Britain to leave the European Union without a deal.”

All of these problems would suggest that’s what’s needed — if not inevitable — is what both critics and supporters of Johnson have been advocating for some time: a general election. Of course, with the competition of the Brexit party and the revived Liberal Democrats, this could seriously backfire for a Johnson government. Yet some think it is in his best interests to call one sooner rather than later. If it’s going to happen, better for him to lead the way.

In terms of delivering Brexit, uniting the country, and defeating Corbyn, the Johnson premiership is marked as high risk and high reward.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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