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PM Boris Johnson’s first test will be to pull the UK out of the Brexit quagmire
India will continue to be seen as an important partner for the UK post-Brexit. Boris Johnson is fond of India and considers Narendra Modi a “political phenomenon”.
Vanity thy name is Boris Johnson! A man who even as a child wanted to be ‘world king’ and had been dreaming of the prime minister’s office for years now finally takes over the keys of 10 Downing Street on July 24, adding another turn to the seemingly never ending saga of Brexit. The process of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union has already taken a significant toll, with two prime ministers gone and the British domestic polity in disarray. Yet there is no easy resolution in sight. Only the cast will change while the theatre of the absurd will continue much like before.
Johnson was elected the new Conservative leader in a ballot of party members wherein he defeated his nearest rival, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, relatively easily. Then in his victory speech, Johnson, in his trademark style, promised rather grandiosely that he would “deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.”
Despite Johnson’s victory, which was never in doubt really, the Tories remain a divided house and a number of senior leaders such as Chancellor Philip Hammond and justice secretary David Gauke have made it clear that they would not serve under him. The Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, of course, are happy as Johnson was the candidate of Eurosceptics and this victory once again makes them the dominant bloc in the Conservative Party.
Opposition parties in the UK have been reserved in their welcoming of Johnson. While the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is already planned to table a motion of no confidence in Johnson while Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said Johnson had “shown time and time again that he isn't fit to be the prime minister of our country.” First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has also made it clear that she had “profound concerns” about him becoming prime minister. These are quite extraordinary sentiments to be expressed for a newly-elected leader of a major party in the genteel world of British polity. However, that’s how polarising Johnson’s personality is.
Given that Johnson had suggested that the agreement his predecessor Theresa May reached with the EU was “dead”, the EU would be equally concerned about the future trajectory of these negotiations. The EU Commission's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, only suggested that he was looking forward to working with the new British Prime Minister “to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit.”
Johnson has spent the better part of his political life in being an agent provocateur. His writings and speeches have been gaffe prone, some would say deliberately so, and his lack of discipline made him a constant fixture of the British tabloid world. His recent provocations include his writing that Muslim women wearing the burka “looked like letterboxes” and linking Papua New Guinea to “cannibalism and chief-killing.”
These controversies seemingly had little effect on his political career. In May’s Cabinet, he was made foreign secretary in recognition of his key role in the Brexit campaign, a post from which he resigned last year over disagreements with May on the Brexit deal. He was one of the most recognisable faces of the Vote to Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum and his attacks on the EU were sharp, though often not based on facts. He had famously declared that he was "pro-having cake and pro-eating it.”
However, as he takes on his new role as the British Prime Minister, he will face many of the same challenges that May faced. He will have no honeymoon period to talk of. His will be a government with no real majority in Westminster and the coalitions around Brexit have not really changed. Intra-party divisions as well as political faultiness across the country on Brexit remain much the same. In such a context, Johnson’s insistence that the UK can and should leave the EU by October 31, with or without a deal, can have serious implications for the both British domestic and foreign policies.
While Brexit will be the defining issue of his prime ministership, various other issues are also of immediate importance.
Johnson will have to repair UK’s fraying ‘special relationship’ with the Trump administration and will have to decide on the role of Huawei in British 5G network. The US-China dispute is impinging on British interests, much the same way as with other states. Then there is Iran which is holding the UK-flagged tanker hostage and is intent on escalating matters with the UK, which is seen as a soft target. He was not a particularly effective foreign secretary, so his role on the foreign policy front will be keen watched.
India, for its part, can be confident that irrespective of who is in 10 Downing Street, it would continue to be seen as an important partner post-Brexit. Johnson, in particular, is fond of India and considers Modi a “political phenomenon”. As the UK looks for new trade partners post-Brexit, India will become even more important in British foreign and economic policies.
For Johnson, however, the challenge would be to find time for anything other than the Brexit quagmire in which the UK seems to have got badly stuck without any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The challenge will test Johnson and merely being witty might not be of great help.
This commentary originally appeared in Money Control.
Harsh V Pant
(Prof. at King's College - ORF)
30 July 2019