on geopolitics

Boris Johnson Is the New British Prime Minister. Here's What That Means For Brexit.

Adriano Bosoni
Senior Europe Analyst, Stratfor
10 MINS READJul 23, 2019 | 11:13 GMT
Boris Johnson is the new British prime minister. But that doesn't mean he can or will trigger a no-deal Brexit.
(NEIL HALL-WPA Pool / Getty Images)
Boris Johnson takes the helm as British prime minister under a promise to make Brexit happen at any cost.
Highlights
  • Boris Johnson's appointment as British prime minister increases the chances of a no-deal Brexit, but the government and Parliament still have plenty of options to avoid a disorderly exit on Oct. 31.
  • The probability of a no-confidence motion to oust Johnson and try to avoid a hard Brexit will increase as the Brexit deadline approaches. 
  • Unable to bypass Parliament or reach a new Brexit deal with the European Union, Johnson could make the politically risky decision to call an early general election to break the legislative impasse.

Over the past three years, British politicians have tried a number of strategies to make Brexit happen: calling an early general election, negotiating an unpopular deal with the European Union, holding votes in Parliament over different exit options and asking Brussels to extend the deadline. All of these efforts have failed. Now, the governing Conservative Party has appointed former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as the new British prime minister, and he has promised to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union on Oct. 31 no matter what. The chances of a hard Brexit have increased now that Johnson is leading the United Kingdom, but a no-deal exit can still be prevented if politicians are willing to consider some radical options.

The Big Picture

Stratfor's Annual and Third-Quarter forecasts anticipated that the political crisis in the United Kingdom would grow this year as Parliament struggles to approve a deal for an orderly exit from the European Union. The appointment of a more hawkish prime minister has increased the probability of a no-deal Brexit, but there are still many forces working against a hard exit in October. 

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister: Now What?

Regardless of his hawkish rhetoric, Johnson will still try to negotiate an exit agreement with the European Union. The problem is that he will ask to leave the bloc's customs union and single market while also demanding a new plan to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open. (According to Johnson, the existing plan, the so-called Irish backstop, should be scrapped because it could trap the United Kingdom in a customs union with the European Union indefinitely.) But the European Union will oppose a complete renegotiation of the existing exit agreement. For all of its internal divisions on almost every major policy issue, the bloc has been remarkably consistent when it comes to the Irish question. This means that Johnson will not get an exit deal significantly different from the one that his predecessor, Theresa May, obtained last year. The House of Commons rejected that deal on three separate occasions. 

This timeline presents all possible Brexit scenarios

The question is, what happens next. Though the United Kingdom's prime minister has changed, Parliament's composition has not, and a majority of lawmakers oppose a no-deal exit. At the end of the day, though, Brexit negotiations are conducted by the prime minister and his team — not by legislators. This means that if London does not reach a deal with Brussels by Oct. 31 — either because the government refuses to negotiate or because the negotiations fail to produce an agreement — the default outcome will be a hard Brexit. The executive branch does have one more option: withdrawing the United Kingdom's request to leave the European Union, consequently aborting Brexit. But that outcome is improbable, given that a majority of Conservative voters and lawmakers want to leave the European Union, even if they disagree about how to do it.

Considering the Nuclear Options: No Confidence

If the House of Commons faces a no-deal scenario, there is only one thing it can do to try to stop it: trigger a no-confidence motion against Johnson, which would require an alliance between the opposition and some members of the Conservative Party. Those Tories who did conspire against their own leader to make him fall would likely be expelled from the party. Considering that the British government controls a majority of only three seats in the Commons (which could be reduced to two after a by-election in August), this scenario is not implausible. But a successful no-confidence motion would also require strong discipline among opposition members of parliament, a prospect that is is far from certain considering that some Labour Party lawmakers represent constituencies that support leaving the European Union. 

A successful no-confidence motion would require strong discipline among opposition members of parliament, a prospect that is is far from certain considering that some Labour Party lawmakers represent constituencies that support leaving the European Union

The timing of a no-confidence vote would be crucial because Conservative legislators who dislike Johnson are unlikely to vote against him if they think there is still time to reach a deal with the European Union. Essentially, a Tory rebellion against Johnson would only succeed if lawmakers believe it is the only possible way to prevent a no-deal exit. So, Labour would have to carefully calculate the right moment to make its move. A no-confidence vote that comes too early could backfire, strengthening Johnson's position instead. One that happens too late may not give London and Brussels enough time to reach agreement on another Brexit delay. 

Should the Commons oust Johnson, lawmakers would have 14 days to appoint a new prime minister and avoid an early general election. The most likely outcome of this scenario is the early election because the rebel Conservative legislators who vote against Johnson are unlikely to support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as the next prime minister. Under these circumstances, the caretaker government would have little choice but to ask the European Union for more time. 

Considering the Nuclear Options: Suspending Parliament

Johnson has an extreme option of his own: He could try to suspend (aka prorogue) Parliament. The goal would be to let the clock run down to the Oct. 31 deadline while also preventing the Commons from triggering a no-confidence motion against him. But on July 18, the Commons approved a motion to force parliamentary sessions in October even if the legislature has been suspended. The preemptive move makes it harder for Johnson to bypass lawmakers and serves as a warning to the new prime minister that the Commons will not go down without a fight. Notably, 17 Conservative lawmakers supported the motion; this is a stark reminder that Johnson is not in full control of his party and provides a preview of what a rebellion against him could look like.

Politicians and analysts have suggested that Queen Elizabeth II should reject Johnson if he asks to prorogue Parliament. But one reason the British monarchy has survived in recent decades is its choice not to interfere with government policies. Any attempt by the queen to block an executive decision would lead to a constitutional crisis, and in a choice between continuing the monarchy or preventing the government from making a move that may or may not be illegal, the queen is likely to choose the former. A more cautious course of action would be for the queen to delay her authorization long enough for Parliament to trigger a no-confidence motion against Johnson.

In addition to the legal complications, Johnson may also have personal reasons not to prorogue Parliament: once Parliament has reconvened after the suspension, it would carry out a vote of no confidence, and angry legislators would likely oust a leader who shut them down during the most important moment in recent British history. If Johnson's goal is to cling to power, suspending Parliament is not a good idea. 

The Not-So-Nuclear Options

Unable to sideline Parliament yet faced with lawmakers opposed to a hard Brexit, Johnson could try to rebrand the existing agreement with the European Union and use his famous public relations skills to present it as something new. This would be possible because the discussions with the European Union are split into two parts: the conditions of the United Kingdom's exit and the terms of future British-EU political and economic ties. Many Tory lawmakers believed May was too soft with the European Union and did not trust her promises that concessions made during the divorce would be offset by the benefits London would obtain during negotiations over the future trade ties. 

Johnson can always ask British voters to solve his problems for him.

As a hard-liner, Johnson has more credibility than May when promising a hawkish position during the talks about the future relationship with the European Union. The bloc, for its part, will be willing to show some flexibility when it comes to negotiating future bilateral ties, opening the door for compromises that Johnson can sell to Parliament as being the result of very tough negotiations in a "Nixon goes to China" kind of strategy. Johnson could try to convince exhausted lawmakers that unpopular plans such as the Irish backstop (or slightly tweaked versions of it) would never be enforced because London will quickly and successfully negotiate a trade deal that would make them unnecessary. 

Finally, Johnson can always ask British voters to solve his problems for him. A new referendum would be a hard sell for the government, especially because most Conservative voters want Brexit to happen and would be extremely disappointed if the party held another vote. A second referendum would also raise uncomfortable questions about whether other recent referendums (most notably the one on Scottish independence) should be held again. But Johnson could decide that he can once again persuade British voters to support his views on the European Union. From his perspective, if his Brexit promises worked in the 2016 referendum, they may work again in a referendum in late 2019 or early 2020. 

Realistically, an early general election is more probable than a referendum because it would seek to end the current stalemate in the Commons (where lawmakers agree that they do not want a hard Brexit but cannot agree on anything else) without necessarily breaking Johnson's promise of delivering Brexit. Johnson can always argue that he tried to make Brexit happen on Oct. 31, but that the rebellious Commons prevented him. However, a general election would still present complications: First, Johnson would have to persuade two-thirds of the Commons to approve it. Most opposition parties would support this idea, but an early vote would be risky for the Tories, who performed poorly in the elections for the European Parliament in May, and many Conservative lawmakers would be reluctant to hold an election in which they could lose their seats. 

A general election would not dissipate the ideological disputes within the two main parties, either. Johnson would try to win back the votes that the Conservatives recently lost to Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which wants a hard exit. But this could come at the price of alienating moderate voters. Labour would be torn between those who want to campaign on the promise of another referendum and those who believe that a referendum should happen only if the party fails to negotiate its desired exit terms. Only smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats would openly campaign against Brexit. As a result, there is a high chance that an early general election would lead to another fragmented Parliament composed of internally divided parties.

Continuing the Comedy of Errors

The clock is ticking and the Oct. 31 deadline is approaching fast. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom have said that this deadline is final, but they said the same about the previous one. (The original Brexit day, after all, was meant to be March 31.) The stakes are higher than they were at the start of the year, considering the deep mistrust between London and Brussels, and Johnson's appointment as prime minister has increased the chances of a hard Brexit. But this is not the default outcome of his appointment, and it's actually not even the most probable one. Some of the options to prevent a hard exit are radical, while others would require a lot of political massaging from the government, but the fact that they are still on the table suggests that the comedy of errors known as Brexit will be getting at least a few more chapters.

Editor's Note: This analysis has been amended to reflect the British government's current majority in Parliament.

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