Apprehensive Britain Watches As Boris Johnson Enters No. 10

Ashwin Ahmad New Delhi 23 July 2019

Boris Johnson has made no secret of his ambitions to be PM but he would most certainly have wished that the timing could have been better. As the controversial and charismatic politician takes over the top job, he immediately has to step in to handle the British oil tanker crisis in Iran, where there seems to be no solution in sight at the moment.

Under former prime minister Theresa May, Britain has already issued a strong statement demanding that the hostages be released at once but such words cannot be backed up by action. The U.S. has stated that securing its tankers in the Strait of Hormuz is the UK’s problem and seems in no mood to intervene in the crisis. This is where Britain is caught. It cannot afford to back the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on Irans – which angers the Iranians and it does not want to join a U.S. led multilateral force against Iran – which angers President Trump. Trump is already unhappy with the UK over ‘Darrochgate’ – a scandal where former UK diplomat Kim Darroch described the Trump presidency as ‘inept’ in secret government files. The files were leaked and Trump voiced outrage but UK support towards Darroch remained firm. Even Johnson, a known admirer of Trump, had to mute his criticism of Darroch.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has proposed reaching out to Europe to create a European Maritime Mission to counter what London terms as ‘illegal acts to piracy’ but this would only encourage Tehran to widen such acts of piracy in the Strait of Hormuz. Almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the 33-kilometre-long strait between Oman and Iran. OPEC members such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq also export most of their crude via the Strait. So this option while possibly being able to better safeguard UK ships will not only increase geo-political tensions but will most probably cause oil prices to skyrocket. Oil plays a crucial factor in determining the popularity of PMs in the UK and if Johnson is seen as partly responsible for the price rise, it is bound to make him deeply unpopular.

Foreign affairs aside, at home, Johnson seems unwanted by important members of his own party, the Conservatives. What makes it especially worrying for him is that Chancellor Philip Hammond, Justice Secretary David Gauke and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart have already publicly announced that they will not serve under the new PM.

Others such as Sir Alan Duncan who was Minister of State for Europe and the Americas has not only resigned but also told the BBC that he had requested the Speaker to test through a debate whether the new PM truly enjoyed the confidence of the House of Commons. Interestingly, it seems the Conservatives, or an important number of them, seem more against the new PM than the main Opposition, the Labour party, that has so far failed to declare whether it would bring a no-confidence motion against Johnson. Insiders believe that Labour will fear that such a move could boomerang and the PM could use this to his advantage in whatever steps he might take next.

However, Johnson will only be too aware of recent history. During former prime minister Theresa May’s tenure, more than 20 ministers quit over Brexit, her Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by a record breaking 230 votes and May’s Government was even found in contempt of Parliament for failing to disclose ‘full legal advice on Brexit.’ Such problems will hang over him and he will be under severe pressure to make sure that he is seen as being above board on Brexit.

While there is much room for manoeuvre and anything can happen, here are the broad scenarios that could take place. Johnson pushes for no deal it is rejected by Parliament and the most likely scenario is a second referendum or a general election. This is the last thing Johnson wants as it means it goes against his stated declaration to exit the EU by October 31. He could negotiate with the EU, something that Johnsonites are counting on as they believe fears of an acrimonious Brexit will cause Europe to give more concessions to Britain. Why? Because a no-deal Brexit effectively removes the UK from the clutches of Europe theoretically weakening the body as a trading bloc and accentuating east-west divides in the continent. But this is just a theory and it is unsure how German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders will respond. So if the EU refuses to negotiate, Johnson may be left with status quo and the pressure from the Cabinet and Parliament may again force a second referendum or elections.

Johnsonites are also counting on the Republic of Ireland who have voted ‘Remain’ to put pressure on the EU to negotiate due to a hit on their economy and fear of the backstop being implemented. But that though too may be misguided. The Irish government is fearful of being seen as kowtowing to London and, according to Irish media reports, believe that the UK cannot sustain a no-deal and will return to the negotiating table in weeks. Also, the question of a backstop is still to be decided. If it is in the Irish Sea, this cuts off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK which the Irish believe harms London more than Dublin as it deals a blow to UK sovereignty and will harm the PM in the House of Commons. So putting pressure on the Irish may not work either.

The new PM has hard choices to make and no feasible options seem to be there at the moment. Unfortunately, thanks to his own rhetoric he has also not bought himself any time to find any. As a result, Britain may soon find Johnson is as confused as May when it comes to Brexit.

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