Why it's so tough for the 2 Conservatives vying to be British PM to fix Brexit

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have a lot in common.

Both in their 50s, they attended elite English private schools and then the University of Oxford. Each has distant ancestry connecting them to British royalty. Hunt serves as the U.K.’s foreign secretary. He got the job after Johnson quit last year.

On Thursday, they became the only MPs left standing in the race to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader and prime minister.

And both are facing the same, seemingly insurmountable, challenge: delivering Brexit.

The ongoing Tory leadership contest has focused almost exclusively on the government’s pledge to pull Britain out of the European Union.

Trying to succeed where May failed

May’s inability to secure an orderly exit cost her the keys to 10 Downing Street.

And the men vying to succeed her are vowing to prevail where she failed — even without much in the way of a new game plan.

Johnson is the oddsmakers’ favourite to win the race. The best-known Brexiteer of the bunch, supporters trust him to stand up to EU leaders and ensure Britain finally leaves.

After an attempt to bring her Brexit withdrawal plan to Parliament a fourth time for a vote, British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to resign. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool Photo via AP)

His team was suspected of “lending” votes to Hunt to guarantee Johnson wouldn’t face his nemesis Michael Gove in the final ballot. The two have been at odds since Gove derailed Johnson’s previous leadership ambitions in 2016.

Johnson set the tone for this campaign the same day May announced her resignation.

Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31, “deal or no deal,” he told a conference in Switzerland.

It sounded an awful lot like what May had said for months: that March 29 was to be Brexit day and the lack of a divorce agreement wouldn’t stop it from happening.

History tells us the opposite: the British Parliament dumped the only deal on offer and the government repeatedly delayed its exit. MPs also rejected leaving without a deal.

Reversals and backflips

And that brings us to the present-day pickle as the new, EU-imposed Brexit deadline of Halloween day approaches.

“If I got to October 31 and there was no prospect of a deal,” Hunt boldly vowed in a televised debate this week, “I would leave without a deal.”

He watered down that promise in his next breath.

“I would want to avoid the disruption of no-deal,” he said. “If we were nearly there, then I would take a bit longer.”

It served as a reminder of Hunt’s various reversals and backflips on Brexit.

Either Johnson or Hunt will move into the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street in London after Britain’s Conservatives choose their new leader. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Ahead of Britain’s 2016 referendum, he supported remaining in the EU. Within days of the Leave side’s win, he floated the idea of another public vote once the terms of a divorce deal would be settled.

Fast forward three years and Hunt — as a leadership candidate — is firmly backing Brexit.

On EU membership, Johnson hasn’t wavered since 2016. He led the Vote Leave campaign and has stuck to his guns as an ardent Brexiteer. It burnished his appeal among Tory Euroskeptics.

Pressures of reality

Now, though, both Johnson and Hunt are stuck between the wishes of their party and the pressures of reality.

While most Britons may not back such a hard exit, Tory members do.

A YouGov poll out this week suggests Conservatives demand a leader who’ll keep alive the threat of a no-deal exit. Hardline Euroskeptics see it as the purest — and the only acceptable — form of Brexit.

And those same party members are the ones selecting a prime minister for the whole country.

At the TV debate this week, the moderator asked how many candidates could ensure an October exit.

Johnson, left, Hunt, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid participate in a Conservative leadership debate on June 18, 2019 in London, England. (Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

Neither of the frontrunners raised his hand.

Instead, Johnson said “October 31 is eminently feasible,” apparently walking back his stance on a “deal or no deal” departure.

Johnson and Hunt must surely be aware of the potentially disastrous consequences a disorderly divorce could have on Irish border communities, British farmers and most other people here, too.

Within hours, a no-deal exit would upend British businesses built around frictionless European trade. The U.K. would automatically quit multilateral agreements such as the Canada-Europe trade deal known as CETA.

Tempting prospect

No one knows the full extent of the disruption because no other country has tried it.

For hardline Brexit supporters, however, it’s a tempting prospect.

Leaving without a deal would mean Britain keeps the estimated £39 billion ($65 billion Cdn) it will still owe the EU for outstanding commitments.

But it’s also akin to racking up a big tab at the bar, then walking out without paying.

Even if there were the will to do it, the time would be insufficient.– Michael Lux

And European leaders have underlined that once Britain returns to the bargaining table to strike a trade deal with the EU — Britain’s biggest trading partner — the Brexit bill must be paid.

Hunt has suggested the solution may be to reach an altogether new agreement, which he claims the EU would be willing to negotiate to alleviate Tory concerns over the Northern Ireland “backstop” provision.

The current plan could see the U.K. tied to European trade rules for years after Brexit.

Approached by a new British prime minister with fresh ideas, the EU “would be willing to renegotiate the package,” Hunt told the BBC.

‘Out of the question’

The claim flies in the face of what European leaders have repeated endlessly: there will be no new deal. Some lines could be added to clarify the basis for a future relationship, but the legally binding divorce arrangement would be set in stone.

Renegotiating by the end of October “is out of the question,” Belgium-based international customs consultant Michael Lux told CBC. He recently co-wrote a Northern Irish government report on the risks of a no-deal scenario.

“Even if there were the will to do it, the time would be insufficient.”

May’s plan took nearly two years to draw up and for the leaders of the 27 other EU member states to sign off on.

If it were to be reopened for the benefit of Britain, other countries are bound to make new demands themselves, prolonging talks and casting further doubt on the U.K. even leaving by year’s end.

Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, said he has no “master plan” for renegotiation.

“A lot of European leaders dislike him so much they refuse to be in the same room as him,” she said.

The issue of a possible physical border between the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU state, has proven to be a major stumbling block in the British government’s quest for a divorce deal. (Peter Morrison/The Associated Press)

Conservative Party members will mail in ballots to select their next leader, with the result expected around July 23.

Purnell points out, though, a wildcard in the Brexit process may come from Brussels, not London.

EU leaders are choosing who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the influential president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch.

Purnell, who wrote the 2011 book Just Boris, said in an interview there’s a “small chance” a change of central players in the Brexit “psychodrama” could shift its trajectory.

Most likely, though, “we’re going to be in exactly the same position we were before … perhaps even worse.”

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