But already, it’s Johnson who is starting to look like the prime minister with no clothes.
On Tuesday, the British pound dropped to its lowest level in two years, a reaction to growing alarm over the likelihood of Johnson’s government crashing Britain out of Europe in a “no-deal” Brexit. His cabinet is packed with hard-line Brexiteers who, like Johnson, want to see Brexit achieved at almost any cost. One minister has already indicated that the government is operating under the “assumption” that it must prepare for a “no-deal” departure: a scenario that would see tariffs immediately slapped on British exports to the continent, financial chaos, lines and delays at border checks, and an endless assortment of other (in some cases, still unforeseen) problems.
Johnson, undaunted, has engaged in a game of brinkmanship with Brussels and Dublin. Over the weekend, he talked tough on his Brexit intentions, voicing his opposition to the “Irish backstop” — the current understanding forged between Britain and the European Union that would preserve a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and therefore theoretically keep all of Britain in the E.U.’s customs union.
European diplomats insist that the current withdrawal agreement, including the conditions around the Irish border — the subject of months of painstaking talks between Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and the E.U.’s 27 other member states — is not up for renegotiation. Johnson resents their intransigence and has said he won’t meet with E.U. leaders until they reconsider their position on the backstop.
Officials in Brussels, meanwhile, may be hoping that Johnson is compelled to blink first and that Britain’s Parliament acts to block a no-deal Brexit. That also may be a scenario Johnson actually wants. Another impasse at Westminster could prompt a snap general election that may yield a Parliament more inclined to back Johnson’s agenda.
“The most likely scenario is Boris goes off to Brussels, Brussels says no, Boris says: ‘Brussels is dictating to us. We want to do a deal, but they won’t let us do a deal,’” University of Nottingham politics professor Steven Fielding told the Associated Press. “Ramping all of that up and then saying, ‘Come and support me on the road to our glorious Brexit’ — and call an election.”
But the domestic picture for Johnson is hardly rosy, either. For two days in a row, the prime minister was greeted by jeering crowds of protesters as he embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom’s home nations. On Monday, he received an icy welcome from Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and was compelled to leave her residence in Edinburgh through a back door to avoid the angry demonstrations.
"The people of Scotland did not vote for this Tory government, they didn’t vote for this new prime minister, they didn’t vote for Brexit, and they certainly didn’t vote for a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, which Boris Johnson is now planning for,” Sturgeon said before his arrival. As my colleagues reported, the chaos and damage of a “no-deal” Brexit may speed calls for a new independence referendum in Scotland — a cause backed by Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party.
The next day in Wales, Johnson met a similarly dubious Welsh first minister. Mark Drakeford, a member of the opposition Labour Party, warned in an interview with the Guardian that a no-deal Brexit would endanger Wales’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors and “a whole way of life that has existed for centuries.” He stressed that Johnson’s characteristic “bluff and bluster” was testing the unity of the United Kingdom itself.
“I think the union that is the United Kingdom is more at risk today than at any time in my political lifetime,” he said, pointing to how both Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union.
Johnson will travel to Belfast on Wednesday in the final swing of his national tour. He will meet the feuding leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland, which hasn’t had a functional local government since 2017, and announce new funding for jobs and business opportunities. But few are impressed by his roadshow.
“The prime minister’s twin ambitions are on a dangerous collision course,” noted an editorial in the Financial Times, referring to Johnson’s stated desire to both strengthen ties among Britain’s four home nations and lead the country swiftly out of the European Union. “Brexit in any shape promises to weaken the bonds between the nations of the British Isles. In the extreme form that seems to be the working assumption by Johnson’s new administration, it will impose intolerable strains. This could set in train a process that ends with the break-up of the union.”
The most intolerable strain would lie across the Irish Sea. A Brexit that doesn’t include an Irish backstop could stoke old tensions, explained my colleague Siobhán O’Grady: “The border is a highly sensitive issue in Ireland because its current arrangement was negotiated as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to the 30-year period known as ‘the Troubles.’ During that time, sectarian violence between Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists, who wanted it to belong to the Republic of Ireland, left more than 3,500 dead. Now, there are fears that the reinstatement of tight border controls between the two sides could ignite a dangerous new wave of tensions reminiscent of that era.”
That’s why officials in Dublin and Brussels consider the backstop nonnegotiable. On Tuesday, almost a full week after taking office, Johnson placed his first phone call to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Their exchange was reportedly “testy” and not particularly productive. According to an Irish readout, Varadkar reminded Johnson that the backstop was “a consequence” of Britain’s political decision to embark on Brexit and that Ireland had the full strength of the E.U. behind it.
On Friday, Varadkar hinted at the possibility of Northern Ireland severing its ties with the United Kingdom in the event of a no-deal Brexit. “I think increasingly you see liberal Protestants and Unionists who will start to ask where they feel more at home,” he said. “One of the things that ironically could really undermine the union of the U.K. is a hard Brexit, both for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, and that is a problem they are going to have to face.”
Not for nothing did former British prime minister Gordon Brown remark at a London event last week that Johnson could be remembered “not as the 55th prime minister of the U.K. but as the first prime minister of England.”
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