Boris Johnson's Brexit Showdown

Trump's friendship will help Johnson once Brexit is finalized, but he cannot appear cozy with or beholden to the US president.

By
Irene Finel-Honigman
July 26, 2019

The new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was voted in by a fraction of the Conservative Party, largely on his promise to finalize Brexit—the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union—by the Oct. 31 deadline. He has characterized his stance toward Brexit as “Do or Die.”

Johnson enters office without a popular mandate and with robust opposition among Conservatives who favor remaining in the union or pursuing a more moderate Brexit. He began his tenure by selecting a cabinet of primarily Brexit hardliners, setting the stage for combat with the union. He demanded that the European bloc reopen negotiations surrounding former British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, with a special focus on the matter of the Irish border

This news was greeted with consternation in Dublin and Brussels and immediately rejected. Johnson’s hard line debut prompted Labor opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to announce a new campaign based on an anti-Brexit platform.

Campaigning on the promise of "One Nation Conservatism,” Johnson has to offer social and infrastructure reforms and prepare for a "no deal" contingency. After barely two days in office, Johnson announced he may call an early election.

Flamboyant, self-promoting and prone to outrageous remarks, Johnson has long cultivated a persona as an unkempt, witty clown who does not pay attention to details and obligations. Like President Donald Trump, he has voiced contempt toward women and minorities. (As Trump proudly declared, “They call him ‘Britain Trump,’ and people are saying that's a good thing.”)

But unlike Trump, Johnson, who first entered Parliament in 2002, had been groomed by education and family for government service.

As architect and promoter of the Brexit movement, Johnson expected to become prime minister after the referendum. Devastated when passed over for Home Secretary Theresa May (who voted to Remain), Johnson began his campaign for prime minister in April 2019 after Parliament rejected May's Brexit plan for the third time. He dropped his farcical persona in favor of a disciplined campaign strategy, steering away from the xenophobic MAGA-style rhetoric of former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. 

Leading up to the election, Johnson mentioned wanting close and friendly relations with Europe. Reactions from French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were polite, cautious and reserved.

The European Union knows Johnson has few options. A “no deal” Brexit is a disaster in the making, with global implications that include severe market, banking and currency disruption, return of transaction fees and duties, possible delays of food and medicine shipments. London, after all, is the global financial center for all euro-denominated transactions.

Trump's friendship will help Johnson once Brexit is finalized, but  in the process Johnson cannot appear cozy with or beholden to the American president. Britain will need a strong trade relationship with the United States to offset losing unfettered access to the EU market. And, unlike Trump, Johnson is pro-NATO and in favor of the Paris climate accord.

As expressed in Der Spiegel on July 24, Johnson now “will have to show quickly that he can lead as well as he can seduce.”


 

A woman with medium-length brown hair facing forward wearing blue earrings

Irene Finel-Honigman, adjunct professor of international affairs, is a senior fellow at the East West Institute. Her expertise includes European financial policy, US-EU relations and Brexit.