By Shanta Acharya
The newly elected leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister of the UK, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has pledged to leave the European Union on 31 October 2019, ‘do or die’, if a free trade agreement cannot be reached by then. The ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ Theresa May, his predecessor, brokered was thrice rejected by Parliament. For Boris Johnson, this agreement is beyond resurrection unless the ‘backstop’, an insurance plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, is removed. The EU has made it clear the backstop is not negotiable. Ursula von der Leyen, the recently elected President of the European Commission, indicated her desire for ‘constructive relations’, but the newly configured EU has emphatically ruled out reopening negotiations. The EU Commission’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he was looking forward to working with Boris Johnson ‘to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit’.
The threat of a no-deal Brexit may have worked in the beginning. It looks unlikely now, taking into account Mr Johnson’s majority of one, which is less than Theresa May’s after her decision tocall a snap election in 2017. With Parliament refusing to leave the EU without a deal, the appointment of a no-deal Brexit cabinet comes as no surprise. While the government directs additional resources into preparing the nation for no-deal, Mr Johnson’s threat to withhold payment of the divorce bill, which is legally binding, may not help in facilitating a smooth departure. Blaming the EU for a no-deal is also not helpful. The problem with Brexit lies at home, where differences are just as fractious and entrenched as before – divisions which led to the fall of Theresa May, not to mention David Cameron, who unwittingly called for the referendum. Whether Boris Johnson turns out to be the third Prime Minister to be sacrificed to Brexit remains to be seen.
In his victory speech, he promised to ‘deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn’. He promised to energise the country, get Brexit done by end of October and take advantage of ‘all the opportunities it will bring with a new spirit of can do.’ Mr Johnson further assured the nation that ‘we are once again going to believe in ourselves, and like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.’ He has promised investing in health and social care, policing and defence, education and infrastructure, and uniting the ‘awesome foursome’. One cannot deny the feel-good power of his speeches, but words come easily to Mr Johnson. The nation’s socioeconomic problems, its deep and entrenched inequality, cannot be easily fixed. People have heard it all before and are skeptical of more promises.
Mr Johnson faces a country frustrated with Brexit. There was no call for a referendum from the people, it was forced on the nation by the Conservative party. The referendum itself was poorly framed, it was meant to be advisory and the margin of victory was far from decisive, thrusting the country into an existential crisis. Brexit was never defined, there is no evidence that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is what people want or voted for. There has never been a consensus on what Brexit means. Mrs May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is as close a definition as any. The Conservative party has now reached a point of reckoning. Mr Johnson longs to be seen in the mould of his hero, Winston Churchill. Such a legacy seems unlikely as long as the fundamental divisions in the country are heightened by the persistent threat of a no-deal. As leader of a divided country facing a constitutional crisis, the challenges he faces will test Mr Johnson’s self-belief. If he manages to deliver a ‘managed Brexit’ ratified by the EU and the UK Parliament that would be nothing short of a miracle. It seems unlikely even for an alchemist.
Parliament remains intractably divided, it is unlikely to ratify a no-deal Brexit. In an open letter, dated 9 July 2019, from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, he wrote: ‘Whoever becomes the new Prime Minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote. In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs.’ The newly-elected Liberal Democratic party leader, Jo Swinson, who is committed to staying in the EU, said Mr Johnson had ‘shown time and time again that he isn’t fit to be the prime minister of our country’. She is not the only person to publicly say so. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, also committed to staying in the EU, congratulated Mr Johnson, but said she had ‘profound concerns’ about him becoming Prime Minister. Mr Johnson continues to depend on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who have kept the Conservatives in government since the 2017 general election.
The fact is that delivering Brexit remains an impossible assignment, no one has found a solution to the Irish border question. A hard border would violate the Good Friday Agreement – hence the ‘backstop’. It is hard to see how Mr. Johnson can extricate himself from this alliance without destroying the UK. A no-deal, hard border exit could strengthen calls for a United Ireland, encouraged by demographic change and the slow waning of unionist sentiment. If dark clouds gather on the Northern Ireland border, it will spur demands for independence in Scotland. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the referendum. Most members of parliament do not want to leave the EU without a deal. Yet there is no consensus on what that deal should be – except it should not be no-deal. If Mr Johnson aspires to negotiate a deal, surely the matter hinges on how to find a solution to the ‘backstop’, which has eluded negotiators until now.
While the solution to such impasse is to hold fresh elections, such a move is fraught with danger. Having an election before delivering Brexit could deflect the Brexit vote to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which peeled off much of the Conservative vote in the European elections, and the remain vote would strengthen the Liberal Democrats. Tory activists believe Mr. Johnson can woo back the faithful from the Brexit party, though his new cabinet may have lost him crucial liberal-leaning seats. The risk of a disastrous rout from a split base, possibly handing Downing Street to Labour and shattering the Tories, may still deliver a solution.
The consequences of a no-deal exit cannot be foreseen. If we think we have a good idea of what Brexit means, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. The truly unacceptable face of Brexit will be revealed when the trade negotiations begin and the UK grapples with its future relationship with the EU along with the rest of the world. It stands to reason that working out new WTO-based deals will not be to the advantage of the UK. A no-deal Brexit is one of the chief threats the IMF has identified in hindering world growth: ‘The principal risk factor to the global economy is that adverse developments – including further US-China tariffs, US auto tariffs or a no-deal Brexit – sap confidence, weaken investment, dislocate local supply chains and severely slow global growth below the baseline’. The impact on the UK will be significantly worse. Those who argue that such predictions are baseless need to remember that the UK has not yet left the EU. The damage Brexit has inflicted on the value of sterling is just a taste of how bad things would get once the UK moves firmly into the realms of uncertainty.
2 August 2019
Shanta Acharya is a poet and writer. Born and educated in India, she won a scholarship to Oxford and was among the first batch of women admitted to Worcester College. A recipient of the Violet Vaughan Morgan Fellowship, she was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy for her work on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard University before joining an American investment bank in London. The author of eleven books, her latest is Imagine: New and Selected Poems. www.shantaacharya.com