Brexit weekly briefing: Johnson's final battle with Hunt beset with evasion

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In case you’ve been residing temporarily on another planet, the former and current foreign secretaries, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, made it through to the final runoff round of the Conservative leadership contest.

Almost instantly, Johnson became embroiled in a row over a late-night altercation with his girlfriend that was loud and worrying enough for a neighbour to call the police – but not for the the potential future PM to answer any questions about.

Johnson came under increasing pressure to explain the row not just from Hunt, who accused the former London mayor of trying to “slink through the back door” of No 10 by “pathetically” evading questioning, but other ministers and a major Tory donor. Hunt later upped the ante as Johnson refused to appear on a Sky debate.

Johnson’s Brexit plans – including a no-deal exit “if necessary” on 31 October, with article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade ensuring there would be no tariffs on UK exports to the EU – were also criticised as pie in the sky by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox.

Despite all the above, however, polls found that the former London mayor – although his popularity took a substantial hit – was still seen by Conservative members (his immediate electorate) as more trusted to make big decisions and negotiate with the EU, and more competent, than his rival.

At an EU summit in Brussels, meanwhile, the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, said Johnson might make the Brexit process “even more exciting”, but the withdrawal agreement had been sealed and would not change.

EU leaders now think Britain will crash out of the EU on 31 October unless the deal is ratified or the new PM calls a second referendum or election this summer. Britain’s former envoy to the EU, Ivan Rogers, said the country was being led to no deal by a political elite who had “great difficulties discerning and telling the truth”.

Should an early election (see below) end up being called, the Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage, went on the record as saying he would be interested in local coalition pacts with the Conservatives to help ensure the UK left the EU without a deal.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Hilary Benn called Brexit a “complete and utter mess” and demanded that Labour unambiguously back a second referendum, while Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said the party would have to back remain to survive.

What next

More and more people think early elections are likely after the new prime minister engages unsuccessfully with EU capitals and Michel Barnier’s team to obtain the changes to the Irish backstop he thinks might get the deal through parliament (none exist, as this piece makes clear).

Several MPs have “huge concerns” about whether Johnson or Hunt could command the confidence of the Commons and avoid an autumn election, and the junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood said up to a dozen Conservative MPs could support a no-confidence motion against the new government.

Johnson could also decide to trigger an election himself with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, but would be unlikely to be able to organise it before the 31 October Brexit deadline without an extension, which he will not want to ask for.

That makes a no-deal exit more likely, many analysts believe. But so too, if there is an election, could be a new Tory government backed by the Brexit party – or a pro-remain Labour government backed by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.

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In the Guardian, Anand Menon and Alan Wager say the contest between Johnson and Hunt is really about who can win a looming general election:

None of the Brexit tales being told by the candidates bears any relationship to the real world. Each candidate will immediately confront two sobering realities: their demands aren’t negotiable, and they have to get something through a hung parliament with no majority for anything. An internal mandate from the Tory party may be all that’s needed to grab the keys to No 10. But actually doing something once in there requires a very different sort of mandate – one that can change the numbers of the House of Commons. This, remember, is a parliament which has the numbers to block a deal and also block no deal. To support solutions the EU will never countenance and to reject a referendum. Which is why what the candidates say does not really matter. How they solve the parliamentary conundrum does. So it’s down to Johnson and Hunt, and as their plans unfold one thing will become increasingly clear: those same Tory members are not really voting for someone to fix Brexit. They are voting for someone who might win the election that will be necessary for Brexit to be fixed.

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Might Brexit – or at any rate, Boris Johnson as PM – mean the end of the union?

Europe Elects

UK (Scotland), Panelbase poll:

Scenario: Boris Johnson (CON-ECR) becomes Prime Minister

Independence referendum

Yes (support independence): 53%
No (oppose independence): 47%

Fieldwork: June 2019
Sample size: N/A#indyref2 #Brexit

June 23, 2019


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