Showdown With Brussels Boris Johnson Steers Into Conflict Course

Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet of hardline Brexiteers appear to be steering toward a showdown with Brussels. By doing so, he's also increasing the chance there will be new elections in Britain this autumn.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II

A Commentary By


Boris has gotten the old band back together.

Michael Gove, who began the march out of the European Union with the Johnson 2016 campaign, is back. As minister for special affairs, it's Gove's job to plan for a no-deal Brexit. Priti Patel is there, who once demanded the reinstitution of the death penalty, and is also one of the Brexit hardliners. She has been appointed home secretary. Even Dominic Cummings is returning to the place that brought him so much pleasure. The quick-tempered, ingenious political madman, who once invented the Brexit slogan "Take back control," will now advise Boris Johnson on issues relating to Britain's divorce from the EU.

And then there's Nigel Farage. He hasn't -- presumably to the annoyance of his bestie Donald Trump -- been offered any government post. But the head of the single-issue Brexit Party is lurking in the wings and will watch like a chaperone to ensure that the liaison between London and Brussels finally comes to an irrevocable end.

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Boris Johnson, at least this much has become clear in the first 24 hours of his term of office, is at least thinking about keeping to every word he has said about the time for compromises with the EU being over. They rejoiced when the new British prime minister addressed his people for the first time on Wednesday. There was nothing more to be heard of his promise to be a prime minister for all people and all four nations of the United Kingdom.

A Calculated Challenge

Instead, the speech was a calculated challenge to all those -- from the Bank of England to the Confederation of British Industry to millions of workers -- who don't want to believe that the country, all on its own, will return to the world stage in grand style after Oct. 31. And it was a threat to Brussels: The tone from Johnson is that if you don't negotiate on our terms, you will be to blame for the tumult that a no-deal Brexit will bring. Moreover, he could withhold the 39-billion-pound divorce bill that London and Brussels agreed to in 2017. "Do not underestimate this country," he said.

Johnson then began putting his money where his mouth is. In one of the most ruthless cabinet reshuffles in recent British history, he kicked out all the men and women who had insulted him or doubted his simplistic, messianic "Believe!" agenda.

Brexit Devotees

The new cabinet consists almost exclusively of Brexit devotees who cannot be rationally reasoned with about the risks of a no-deal Brexit. Several of the new ministers seriously believe that a no-deal will massively damage the EU but do little harm to Britain. Indeed, this government no longer represents the 52 percent of Britons who voted for Leave in 2016 -- it only represents the fraction of EU skeptics who would be willing to pay any price for Brexit, including the demise of the United Kingdom.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the anti-EU extremists, will have a position in the cabinet. He recently ridiculed the chancellor of the Exchequer for estimating that Britain risked losing 90 billion pounds as a result of Brexit. But Rees-Mogg promised the opposite, saying a no-deal Brexit could boost the economy by 80 billion pounds. He's more or less alone in that assessment.

In a piece representative of the views of many, Times of London columnist and former Tory parliamentarian Matthew Parris commented incredulously of Johnson's actions. "I see a boy along in a room with crayons and a blank sheet of paper, putting horns on the faces of those he does not like, or have hurt him, and smiles on the faces of his chums," he wrote.

At the same time, Johnson's aggressive entrance into office could also be the result of a well-thought out calculation. It appears that he's trying to use scare tactics to intimidate the new EU leadership in Brussels to such an extent that they will budge a little and renegotiate some of the things they have held to be non-negotiable. These include the contingency plan for an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (the "backstop"), which Johnson says is "dead." It's an all-or-nothing tactic, and Johnson knows it could fail, given that the British parliament has vowed to use all means at its disposal to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

But that could, despite all his denials, also lead Johnson to call for snap elections this autumn. The recent European elections have shown how disastrous such a ballot could be for the Tories. In that poll, Farage's Brexit Party garnered more votes than the Conservatives. But if Johnson were to convince the British people that the stubbornness of Brussels alone had forced him to call a vote, the anger of the people could potentially be chanelled to secure votes for his party and not Farage's. A cabinet as wildly determined as Johnson's to be hostile to the EU would likely keep conservative skeptics at bay and once again secure power for the Tories.

There's much to suggest that Johnson is preparing for a showdown in Brussels, followed by a showdown at home. He doesn't seem to care that this would further divide his already troubled country.

Politics is a game for Johnson, and he's used to winning. Nobody can pretend they didn't know.

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