Johnson’s success in the Conservative leadership election is based upon undeliverable or potentially disastrous promises, either of which will only increase the Brexit Party surge.
Boris Johnson is all set to be crowned leader of the Conservative Party on Tuesday. His seemingly irresistible rise to victory can be attributed to a number of factors, but most important is his tough stance on Brexit, which has struck a chord with the party membership.
‘We want clarity!’
He has stated clearly that Britain will leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal and has a solid reputation as a Brexiteer given his prominent role in the victorious Vote Leave campaign. Whilst he is a divisive character despised by many on both right and left throughout the country, his personality and reputation amongst the membership as an unpredictable, flamboyant rogue has helped him stand out over the other more dour candidates.
Yet, Johnson has a problem. A revitalised Nigel Farage is breathing down his neck and ready to pounce. Farage has said of his latest outfit that there is ‘no difference between the Brexit party and UKIP in terms of policy’ – providing the Conservative Party’s membership with a credible right-wing alternative – and the party has already demonstrated impressive early success with victory in the European Parliament elections. Their image of a more modern, diverse and populist Ukip – whilst vacuous in policy terms – is nevertheless likely to see them access new voters that the older, more reactionary Ukip could not. They have been careful not to position themselves on anything other than a hard-Brexit. If Johnson wants to win the swathes of voters the party lost to Farage during the European Elections, it is therefore crucial that he ensures Britain’s departure from the EU before or on October 31.
Yet, Johnson’s promise to leave the EU by the deadline with or without a deal is fraught with difficulties. Many of Johnson’s own MPs have said they would support a vote of no confidence in his government alongside opposition parties if he attempts to leave without a deal, triggering a general election. This could require Johnson to negotiate a further extension to Britain’s EU membership as the country votes for a new government. Farage would relish the opportunity to put his Brexit Party to the ultimate test in a general election in an environment where their ‘betrayal’ narrative can be repeated ad nauseum. The prospects for the Conservative Party – who have had three years to ensure Britain’s withdrawal – in such a setting are grim and could lead to a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.
Johnson has claimed his first preference if appointed Prime Minister is to go to Brussels and seek a new deal which can be voted through Parliament before October 31, leading to a more orderly Brexit. Even a rampant optimist would say that this is unlikely. It took Theresa May the best part of three years to negotiate her own deal whereas Johnson would have three months. More importantly, EU negotiators have repeatedly stated that there is nothing new to be negotiated and that it is May’s existing withdrawal agreement or nothing. It seems unlikely that Johnson can get May’s withdrawal agreement through Parliament with only cosmetic changes to divisive elements, notably the Irish ‘backstop’. Even if Johnson were to get May’s deal through Parliament, this could not be done without angering swathes of ‘purist’ Brexiteers who cannot stomach the £39 billion being paid to the EU as part of the agreement or the additional two year transitional period. These voters would find a welcoming home in the Brexit Party.
‘No to delay!’
Another option for Johnson is delaying Brexit even further until he gets a deal acceptable to Parliament. Besides the fact that he has repeatedly ruled this out, this would fan the flames of dissent on the radical right even further and should his Government fall or a general election be called – the Conservative Party could face an existential crisis if they fight an election having repeatedly delayed Brexit – a prospect again which Nigel Farage would be delighted by.
Should Johnson take the riskiest option – no deal – which is effectively Farage’s advice, he faces the likelihood of economic disaster that comes with Britain crashing out. If Britain leaves without a deal, leading to economic harm (which is really a matter of degree rather than ‘if’), it could damage all Brexiteers, including Farage. Yet given Farage’s lack of involvement in the actual process, it is likely to be the Conservative Party who will suffer. Farage could (and will) argue that damage has been caused by politicians, such as Theresa May, who never ‘believed’ in Brexit or didn’t prepare adequately for no deal, which was always his preference. Farage has been in the background for the vast majority of the process and only recently re-appeared as the Brexit Party swept to victory in May’s European Elections, enabling him to distance himself somewhat from any economic harm caused.
Notwithstanding the unpredictability of how exactly Britain will eventually leave the EU, it seems doubtful how Johnson’s tough rhetoric on Brexit can be made a reality. Anything but leaving on October 31 will see the Brexit Party and others on the radical right emboldened and their narrative that Britain is being destroyed by elite traitors gain more traction.
Dr Paul Stocker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Teacher of History at Chelsea Independent College. See his profile here.
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