If former UK Prime Minister Theresa May can be seen as a kind of Hamlet, slain politically after her inability to produce a Brexit decision from Parliament, Boris Johnson seeks to be a kind of Henry V, leading the British decisively, against all odds, to a great victory. We will know in two months how this gambit plays out.
Having watched his predecessor’s failing struggle, the current Prime Minister seems to have concluded that his best chance at success is to take matters into his own hands. It is a stunning example of the exercise of raw political power. His first step – in contrast to former PM May – was to embrace a no-deal Brexit, no matter the cost. Having already made the decision to suffer the political consequences of whatever a nodeal Brexit might produce, Johnson has strengthened his own hand in dealing with the European Union. He says he seeks a new and better Brexit deal from the EU and will accelerate negotiations to get one. The EU does not want to reopen closed negotiations. But faced with the credible prospect of a no-deal Brexit that would also hurt Europe, the EU has an incentive to negotiate. If the two sides agree, Johnson presents a fait accompli to Parliament. If they fail, Johnson has already made his decision.
His second brazen step has been to cut off any second-guessing from Parliament, which paralyzed Theresa May’s government, in the run-up to the October 31 deadline. With an extended proroguing of Parliament, followed by a Queen’s speech and presentation of the Government program on October 14, Johnson is forcing his adversaries’ hands.
A court challenge to his advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament is likely to go nowhere. A no-confidence vote before Parliament ends its session would either fail – confirming him in his position – or if it succeeds, lead to early elections. Johnson believes he would benefit from either outcome. The most likely scenario is that Parliament submits to the prorogation.
His critics are howling. But the low turnout at August 31 demonstrations indicates that Johnson may be right in believing that he has the upper hand for now, and the public is willing to give him a chance.
His third step, perhaps still being worked out, is under wraps and will remain so until the last minute. Even with a no-deal Brexit, the government has enormous leeway in how it chooses to implement a post-Brexit regime. There may be an opportunity for a delayed implementation, or phased implementation, agreed by both the UK and EU. Even absent any agreement, there may be opportunities for the UK to delay or phase in its own implementation, putting the EU in the position of taking the political heat for imposing any immediate and tough measures, such as on the UK-Ireland border.
Implementation over time can also take the form of reliance on mutual respect for EU and UK legal and regulatory systems and declarations, spot inspections at warehouses and factories, and 21 st century data exchanges and technologies, rather than reliance on 19 th century methods of stopping people and goods at the Channel and the UK- Ireland border.
It is all an enormous gambit. The potential ripple effects of Brexit – such as Scottish independence or a new flare-up in Northern Ireland – remain quite real. But unlike his predecessor, Johnson has decided to go into these battles headfirst. A battle not joined is a battle not won. Johnson is going all in to win – and for the sake of both the UK and Europe, Americans hope he is successful, one way or another.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.