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London Observed: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the “Slumbering Giant” and 17 Removed Ministers

25 Jul 2019
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Boris Johnson, the new prime minister of the UK. Source: Flickr, Number 10

Rarely has a peacetime British prime minister been confronted with such grave challenges, nor have they appeared so unequal to the task. As UK politics undergoes great change, Australia’s request could be triaged to the bottom of Mr Johnson’s brimming in-tray.

The television picture most Londoners are likely to remember from the spectacle of Boris Johnson arriving at the Queen Elizabeth Centre to hear of his decisive victory in the Conservative Party leadership was of a burly Irish demonstrator bawling: “… keep your trousers on when you go and see the Queen.”

The campaign that began with the Brexit referendum three years ago and iconic red Boris bus, emblazoned with populist — and untrue — slogans, ended as it began: in pure vaudeville.

After briefly acknowledging a debt of gratitude to the two-thirds of Tory members who voted for him, Boris Johnson sought to energise his supporters with a typically optimistic, quick-fire message that rose to a crescendo. “I say to all the doubters: dude, we are going to energise the country, we are going to get Brexit done on October 31st, we are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that Brexit will bring in a new spirit of can-do, and we are once again going to believe in ourselves, in what we can achieve. Like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and pin off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”

Many in Westminster have observed that the elevation of Mr Johnson completes the conversion of the Tory party to a hard Brexit organisation and that his selection – by just 0.14 percent of the British electorate – is a threat to democracy. There is likely to be an early election, they believe. At the Australian High Commissioner’s summer garden party at Stoke Lodge the speculation of an early election did the rounds and host George Brandis repeated press rumours of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s health. The comments may prove to be prophetic but, for the immediate future, they are misleading.

The shape of the initial Johnson cabinet reflects the power of the Conservative hard right who were the catalyst for his vow to leave the EU by October 31, if necessary without a deal with Brussels. Johnson’s first act on entering office was to decimate Mrs May’s cabinet. By the end of his first evening he had sacked or caused the resignation of 17 ministers. They included the chancellor Philip Hammond, whose management of the economy has been exemplary. Mr Hammond, now on the backbenches, has vowed to fight a no-deal Brexit with every “bone in my body.” Under the precarious parliamentary arithmetic, Hammond’s supporters, including a substantial rump of Tory MPs, could bring down the Johnson government if it attempts a no-deal Brexit. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and Penny Mordant, defence secretary, have both been sacked after backing Mr Johnson’s defeated rival, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has also lost his job.

While it is true that Johnson was chosen by just 92,153 Tory party members, it was he who initiated the campaign that won the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership and ultimately won him the prize of party leader and prime minister. The referendum result to leave — 52 percent vs. 48 percent — was reaffirmed by Parliament and by the people at the 2017 general election. Jeremy Corbyn’s reported ill health appears to be an exaggeration, though his personal popularity has slumped as a result of Labour’s problems with anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, despite his exuberance, Mr Johnson now faces the daunting task of delivering Brexit within 99 days and uniting a deeply divided country. As the authoritative Financial Times put it: “Rarely has a peacetime British prime minister confronted circumstances as grave as those awaiting Boris Johnson. Rarely too, has an incoming premier appeared, by temperament, character and record, so unequal to the magnitude of the task.”

As he entered 10 Downing Street, Mr Johnson would have none of it. “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong – again,” he insisted. “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts.” Later, invoking Britain’s spirit in two world wars, he sounded almost Churchillian. “After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it’s time to change the record, to recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world. No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country. They will not succeed today.”

The new prime minister did not provide any detail of how or even when he will restart talks with Brussels, but EU Council president Donald Tusk was quick to pounce and replied sardonically that he much looked forward to a detailed discussion. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has also welcomed Mr Johnson while making it clear the withdrawal agreement agreed with Theresa May was not up for renegotiation.

Sam Lowe, head of the Centre for European Reform think-tank, points out that the costs of a no-deal Brexit will be seven times larger than for the other 27 EU countries. “Anyone who thinks they can play chicken over no-deal is dishonest,” he said. “The EU believe they can weather the storm far better than the United Kingdom.”

The two new ministers likely to bear the brunt of any negotiations are likely to be Dominic Raab, who resigned from Mrs May’s government as Brexit secretary, and Michael Gove, a former Johnson rival, who is managing Cabinet business as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Other important Cabinet appointments are Sajid Javid as chancellor of the exchequer and Priti Patel as home secretary. Mr Javid will have to find the budgets for Mr Johnson’s extravagant promises, while Ms Patel will spearhead a fairer immigration policy and the hiring of an additional police officer.

While fulfilling Brexit will be Mr Johnson’s priority — he is committed to his October 31 deadline — he has other pressing concerns. These include the rapidly deteriorating relationship with Iran following the seizure of a British tanker and its crew in the Persian Gulf and a decision on whether to continue EU attempts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran revoked by his friend President Donald Trump, or to have Britain join Trump’s proposed multilateral force.

Other pressing issues include the May government’s recent commitment to a zero-carbon emissions world by 2050, which has been challenged by members of the Tory right; ongoing hostility with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; and demands from the Trump administration that the UK pulls back from Mrs May’s inclination to give the nod to Chinese state-owned Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G mobile telephone network.

Australia also has a request in Mr Johnson’s brimming in-tray. In a lengthy speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, Senator Linda Reynolds, minister of defence, made a plea to the UK to increase its military presence in the South Pacific, working closely with the Royal Australian Navy.

Without naming China she said pointedly, “As all of us working in national security are only too aware, the character of warfare is changing fast. There are more options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict: what some experts like to call grey-zone tactics or hybrid warfare. What is also very clear is that countries prepared to flout the rules-based order have little hesitation in resorting to these options and they have more authority to direct resources towards them. The longer we leave it unchecked, the bolder they become. Australia has been prepared to call out violations of international law and international security and hold those responsible to account.”

Given the immediate demands on Mr Johnson’s time, it’s likely that Australia’s interesting request could be triaged to the bottom of the pile. However, Whitehall’s eyes are firmly on the third stage of the EU-AU Free Trade Agreement now in the third phase of negotiation and, sooner or later, Canberra can expect some pressure from London to help achieve a place in the reformed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move backed by Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe.

The week in Westminster ended with the same raucous note on which it began. The headline in Thursday mornings The Times proclaimed “Boris’s Cabinet Carnage,” with a comment that his enemies had been put to the sword in a quest for revenge. The Sun had a play on a headline from the Macmillan era. “Night of the Blond Knives.” The man himself fronted up at the last sitting of the House of Commons before the summer recess, delivered a typically rambunctious speech which had the Tories cheering at a level of decibels not seen in years, while the glum faces on the Opposition benches told their own story. Not for them the Johnson claim his premiership was the start of a new golden age; Mr Corbyn predicting Britain was doomed to become the “vassal state of the USA.”

There was a new leader of the house in the form of Johnson’s patrician fellow old Etonian, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the hard Brexit so-called European Research Group, who encouraged the new PM to stand for more than two hours to answer MPs’ rapid-fire questions; not that Mr Johnson needed any encouragement.  It gave him, once more, the opportunity to ram home his mantra – Britain leaves the EU with no deal on October 31, if Brussels proves intransigent. He also announced EU citizens would be guaranteed full rights if they remained in Britain, and the introduction of an Australian-style migration points system, and insisted the UK would become a world leader in fighting climate change through technology. It also emerged that the principal task of the new head of the Cabinet, Michael Gove, is to mastermind plans for a no-deal Brexit.

And so the Boris saga moves on. The next key date will be when the Commons resumes in September to face either a vote on a new negotiated agreement between London and Brussels, or, more likely, a vote of no-confidence faced with the prospect of an exit without a deal.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.