Boris Johnson is back and could prevent Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Boris Johnson at his first Foreign Affairs Council meeting. [European Union]

The Brexit deal is likely to leave both ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ unsatisfied. But Guy Edwards believes it is possible that Boris Johnson, the man who backed Brexit to advance his career, may switch sides again to save his own skin.

Guy Edwards is a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Environment and Society, Brown University, and co-director and co-founder of the Climate and Development Lab.

Bojo is back! During a press briefing last week, Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the US State Department, couldn’t suppress a broad grin on hearing that Boris Johnson was Britain’s new foreign secretary.

The momentary lapse was rapidly checked. Toner may have recalled Johnson’s highly offensive remarks about his boss. Last April, the former London mayor described President Obama as a “part-Kenyan” who harboured an “ancestral dislike” of Britain following the president’s comments in favour of Britain staying in the European Union.

The decision of Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May to pick Johnson has generated intense debate not only on the possible motivations behind the appointment but what it could mean for Britain’s departure.

With a looming recession and little clarity on what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like, the scale of the challenge is reaching altitude sickness-inducing heights. Moreover, May became prime minister without having won a general election or a Conservative Party leadership contest, given her rivals either imploded or bowed out. The lack of votes from the public and her party constitutes an irksome invisible cloak she will be unable to shake off.

May took a massive gamble with Johnson out of political necessity rather than because she necessarily thinks he is a statesman. As the leader of the winning campaign to leave the EU and as a popular character with many Conservative MPs and party members for his intelligence and charisma, Johnson is too conspicuous not to be in the cabinet.

Johnson’s weaknesses offer an additional explanation. His notoriety for insults, self-aggrandisement, casual attitude towards facts, and poor organisational skills could provide May with some comfort. He provides a useful distraction for the media from her daunting agenda and he could destroy himself or she may have to fire him if his next blunder is too great, thus eliminating a potential rival.

The foreign secretary will not handle the detailed negotiations on Brexit. David Davis will lead the newly minted Ministry for Brexit, which will spearhead the process to attempt to untangle Britain from the EU, while Liam Fox leads the Department for International Trade, charged with surveying the prospects for new global trade deals.

Johnson will still be highly visible and will play an important role on a gamut of hefty issues from Europe to Russia and Turkey.

Various reactions to Johnson’s appointment were damning. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called him a liar, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested his conduct before the EU referendum was deceitful and reckless. Given the sensitivity and high stakes of Britain’s discussions with the EU and others, these criticisms do not bode well for building trust with key partners.

Yet in one stroke the prime minister has sought to placate those wary that she might try to fudge Brexit, given she backed remaining part of the EU before the referendum, while simultaneously giving ample responsibility and ownership to Brexiteers Johnson, Davis and Fox.

This gives May space to breath and limited cover. If negotiations with the EU turn sour, she can share the blame with leading Brexit backers. But the buck will ultimately stop with her. If some of her hard-line Conservative MPs and party members deem she is not standing up sufficiently for their concerns, namely controlling the free movement of people from the EU, they could cry treachery and dethrone her. As witnessed in recent weeks with the resignation of David Cameron following his disastrous decision to hold a referendum on the EU, the Conservative party is at its most treacherous over Europe.

The British government is currently trying to work out its options for Brexit. One of the biggest decisions will be whether to attempt to remain part of the EU single market, which requires accepting the free movement of people, or forgoing that access to control EU immigration.

Securing access to the single market and accepting the free movement of people will be unacceptable to Conservative hardliners and UKIP, while trying to have market access and curb EU migration is a redline for the EU. A deal where Britain leaves the EU and secures market access and some control of EU immigration would mean contributing to the EU budget without a place at the EU table where the rules are set. A harder Brexit which sees Britain forgo single market access and looks to form new trade deals with the US or Australia would have serious economic consequences not least for the City of London, which benefits enormously from its business within the single market.

Politically, this route could be unacceptable for some opposition parties including Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland that voted to remain. The EU will also be unwilling to let Britain saunter off with a cosy deal to avoid encouraging other countries to follow suit. Any future deal between Britain and the EU would also require unanimity on the part of the remaining 27 EU member states, making any negotiation especially tricky.

The likelihood of the British government negotiating an agreement palatable to these distinct actors without a major backlash is slim.

Cue Bojo. Johnson may have been a leading Brexiteer, yet he cannot shake off the accusations that his heart was never in it and he led the Leave campaigns to try and become prime minister. As foreign secretary he says he wishes to keep Britain a big global player and maintain intense relations with the rest of Europe. Now faced with the realities of Brexit he may push for the least abrasive option.

If Britain’s negotiations with the EU fail, Johnson will try not to get trapped in the wreckage. May who faces a similar fate could use Johnson to help win the argument with Conservatives and the public that avoiding Brexit is the least reckless option.

Although politicians state that the result of the EU referendum must be respected, there is some room for manoeuvre given the result was advisory and not legally binding. The fact that Scotland, Northern Ireland, and a majority of Labour supporters voted to remain cannot be ignored. The jury is still out as to whether the government can invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the official process to leave the EU, by itself, or whether a vote in parliament in necessary. May has said she does not intend to invoke Article 50 this year. In addition, a parliamentary vote will be necessary and possibly another referendum or general election on any proposed deal which May’s government can secure with Brussels.

To safeguard Britain’s economy and the physical integrity of the UK, May would be reckless to back Brexit at any cost. It is plausible that Johnson, the man who backed Brexit to advance his career, could change tack again and support avoiding Brexit to save his own skin. The irony that those wishing to stay in the EU could end up thanking the man that won the referendum to leave for avoiding Brexit would be glorious in its absurdity. Following the last few weeks in British politics, anything is possible.

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