Johnson’s vigour as leader mired in confusion over intentions

London Letter: PM’s force and Brexit focus prompts sturdy Brussels unity as reaction

 British prime minister Boris Johnson: brutal cabinet purge and appointments signal his determination to get a grip on the machinery of government. Photograph: Simon Dawson

British prime minister Boris Johnson: brutal cabinet purge and appointments signal his determination to get a grip on the machinery of government. Photograph: Simon Dawson

 

Boris Johnson’s first week as prime minister has shown his strengths as a politician, as he brought vigour and focus to a government that has been listless and drifting for much of the past three years. But it has also offered signposts towards trouble ahead and reminders of the underlying weakness of Britain’s position as it negotiates its exit from the European Union.

Johnson’s campaigning style, which he has deployed almost every day in speeches and appearances around the country, has driven home the message that his administration has the single, overarching purpose of delivering Brexit. His brutal cabinet purge, his choice of Dominic Cummings as his top adviser and his appointment of Michael Gove to oversee no-deal planning has signalled his determination to get a grip on the machinery of government.

The new prime minister’s demand that the EU agrees to abandon the backstop before he sits down to negotiate has helped to win back Conservative voters from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. And its very unreasonableness has discombobulated Brussels, Dublin and other European capitals as they seek to divine Johnson’s true intentions.

Johnson’s preferred locution, “the anti-democratic backstop”, which is also used in official communications from government departments, has driven officials in some European capitals into a frenzy of exegesis. 

‘Democratic’ backstop

Could he be implying that a more democratic form of the backstop is available, perhaps by way of an enhanced role for the Stormont institutions in determining how regulatory alignment works? Or is it no more than low abuse designed to delegitimise the very concept of the backstop as he prepares to blame the EU and Ireland for his failure to avoid a no-deal Brexit?

Johnson’s adversaries at Westminster are also divided over how to interpret his public statements as they plot their strategy ahead of parliament’s return in September. As he drives towards the cliff of a no-deal Brexit, will he swerve before October 31st? Is he hoping that an attempt by parliament to thwart him will provide a pretext to call a general election? Or should he simply be taken at his word when he says he will take Britain out of the EU on that date, deal or no deal, do or die?

The confusion may be heartening for Johnson but this week has also offered warning signs that should blunt any euphoria in Downing Street. No cracks have appeared in the European monolith over Brexit and the swift isolation of Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley for criticising the Government’s approach highlighted the strength and depth of the consensus behind the backstop in Dublin.

Johnson’s Sherpa David Frost got short shrift this week during his first visit to Brussels, where diplomats and officials noted his difference in status to his predecessor Olly Robbins. Whereas Robbins was a civil servant who reported directly to the prime minister and commanded more authority than the Brexit secretary, Frost is a political adviser who answers to Cummings.

Johnson was booed when he arrived at Edinburgh’s Bute House on Monday to meet Nicola Sturgeon and had to leave by the back door. And he avoided awkward questions in Northern Ireland on Wednesday by refusing to speak to reporters.

Looming summit

Opinion polls offer a mixed picture, with Conservatives winning support from the Brexit Party but losing it to the Liberal Democrats, while Labour remains steady. To win a modest majority of 40 seats, the Conservatives would have to gain almost 50, a challenge made greater by the likely loss of seats in Scotland and the south of England to the Liberal Democrats and others.

The sharp fall in sterling this week has highlighted the economic risks of a no-deal Brexit and the British government’s “turbo-charging” of no-deal preparation has already served to highlight the inevitable disruption it would create.

Johnson will have his first encounter with European leaders at the G7 summit in Biarritz from August 24th-26th, where he will meet Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk.

At the G7 meeting in Canada last year, Theresa May aligned herself with the EU and against Donald Trump on the most important issues, including Iran and world trade. Johnson’s European counterparts will be alert to how he positions Britain in Biarritz as they consider the geopolitical risks of a no-deal Brexit.

They saw how Johnson kowtowed to Trump during the leadership campaign when he sacrificed Britain’s ambassador to Washington rather than bruise the president’s fragile ego. If he aligns himself with Trump against them on an issue such as Iran, Europe’s leaders may conclude that their geopolitical interests would not be served by facilitating this prime minister’s success in office.

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