Boris Johnson is the clear frontrunner in the race to become UK prime minister, after storming ahead in the first round of voting among Conservative MPs in the party leadership contest.
The ex-foreign secretary and London mayor officially launched his campaign on June 12 – backed by a small avalanche of new supporters in parliament, and a fresh opinion poll seen as suggesting that the Conservatives under his leadership would romp home in a general election.
His position appears increasingly strong. But even if he fails, his rhetoric and message on Brexit have set the tone for the debate.
There have been many references to a “clean, managed Brexit”, but critics of “no deal” argue it would be dirty and chaotic. The hardline stance taken by the ex-foreign secretary and other leading Tory candidates is viewed as wildly unrealistic.
Kicking buckets and cans
Johnson’s over-riding message on Brexit is that the United Kingdom must leave the European Union on October 31, the scheduled departure date following two missed deadlines in the spring. Failure to do so would be fatal for the ruling Conservatives.
“Kick the can again and we kick the bucket,” he says.
He denies, however, that he wants a no-deal Brexit – saying his objective is to renegotiate a new deal with the European Union before the autumn.
Johnson's commitment to the deadline has been echoed by several other contenders for the Conservative leadership.
Dominic Raab has suggested bypassing parliament if necessary to make Brexit happen. Sajid Javid and Michael Gove have each said they would pick no deal over no Brexit. Eliminated candidates such as Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey both took a hardline stance over the UK's departure date.
Rival leadership contender Rory Stewart, a vehement opponent of “no deal”, took to Twitter to attack Johnson’s stance in particular. “He is promising to get no-deal through parliament – a promise he cannot keep. And he has no clear view of what tariffs he seeks, or which British business he is seeking to protect. Where is the consistency, clarity, strategy or values in any of this?”, he asked.
According to a report based on a leaked Cabinet document, the Institute for Government and other assessments, the UK is far from prepared for a no-deal Brexit. The country's most senior civil servant has said that government and public services are in "pretty good shape" to cope.
Flogging a dead horse?
Several candidates have suggested the EU exit deal, and in particular the Irish backstop, can be renegotiated. Johnson has promised to shed the “intellectual prison” of the insurance policy designed to guarantee an open border on the island of Ireland, and to defer talks on the issue.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – who has claimed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is open to renegotiation – argues that “a different deal” is the only way to deliver Brexit. “That means negotiations that take us out of the Customs Union whilst generously respecting legitimate concerns about the Irish border. Technology offers great promise in this respect,” he posted to his Facebook page.
Claims that the Withdrawal Agreement – on the terms of the UK’s EU exit – can be renegotiated are widely seen in EU circles as completely divorced from reality.
“It’s a treaty between the EU and the UK. It has to be respected by whomsoever will be the next prime minister… There will be no renegotiation,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.
Other EU leaders, including several heads of government, have repeatedly said similar things. “No, no, no, no, no,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel when asked in May about further negotiations.
Peter Foster, Europe editor of the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, has been scathing about claims that quick fixes can be found to the Irish border question. He cites a report by two specialist lawyers for the Northern Ireland civil service, which concludes that businesses would face massive difficulties in the event of a no deal Brexit.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said the non-binding Political Declaration can be re-opened – but this was in the light of calls for the UK to tie itself more closely to the EU, not go in the opposite direction as most Conservatives want to do.
Doing a runner?
Boris Johnson has also claimed he would refuse to pay the Brexit divorce bill – to settle the UK’s obligations and estimated at €45 billion – unless the EU offers better terms.
His threat has been condemned as “undignified” by Rory Stewart, and as dangerous for the UK economy. Reuters quoted a top French source as saying it would be “equivalent to a sovereign debt default”. The EU's Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger has also warned that failure to pay might affect future relations over trade, employment, and programmes on security, universities and science.
“Everybody knows what is on the table. What is on the table has been… negotiated successfully by the Commission and approved by all member states, and the election of a new prime minister will of course not change the parameters of what is on the table,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday, when asked about Johnson’s threat.
Getting real on no deal
Some Brexiteers hope that new faces, due to fill the EU’s top posts later this year, may bring a more flexible approach to dealing with the UK. But other observers in Brussels expect little change. An indication of government leaders’ positions should come when they review Brexit progress at a European Council summit on June 20 and 21.
The prospect of a no-deal Brexit looks set to dominate the debate in the run-up to October. Several Tory leadership candidates say they are ready for it, despite multiple warnings of severe disruption to the economy.
More Brexit battles loom in the House of Commons. The Labour opposition suffered a setback on Wednesday when MPs voted against a motion to try to stop a future prime minister from going for no deal without parliament’s consent.
The final decision on who will become Conservative leader and the UK’s prime minister will be down to the party’s membership. Seen as highly unrepresentative of the British public at large, they are due to vote on the two remaining candidates in July.
The signs are that they will back a hardliner. Although only a minority of British people are thought to back leaving the EU without an agreement, a recent survey of Tory party members found that two-thirds supported a no-deal Brexit. Among Boris Johnson’s followers, the figure rose to 85 percent.