The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: Can Anything Stop Boris Johnson Now?

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images, Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images.

Britain is in the midst of a very strange election. The choice between the final two candidates for prime minister—which could have profound ramifications for the country’s future—is being made by about 160,000 grassroots Tories, who account for about 0.002 percent of the national population. These aren’t the supporters of the Conservative Party—there were more than 13.6 million of those in the most recent general election—but they are people who pay £25 ($32) per year to be members of the party.

Who are these folks? You will not be shocked to learn that they skew older (more than half are over 55; 4 in 10 are over 66), whiter (97 percent), maler (7 out of 10 are men), and richer than the public at large. They are also more economically and socially conservative. Democracy!

This week in Boris: Front-runner Boris Johnson came into the final round of the leadership contest with a healthy polling lead over his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Hunt’s best hope for victory is to hope that Johnson has an epic meltdown—which is entirely within the realm of possibility.

It looked like it might be happening last week, when the Guardian reported that Johnson’s neighbor had called the police after hearing a disturbance at the London home he shares with his partner, Carrie Symonds. The neighbor told the paper that she heard a woman screaming, followed by loud banging and Symonds saying, “Get off me” and “Get out of my flat.” The neighbor recorded part of the altercation and provided it to the paper. Police came to the scene but determined there was “no cause for police action.” Johnson has avoided commenting on the incident. In a general election, this might raise some red flags with voters. With the crowd discussed above, unless there are significant new revelations, it seems unlikely to make a huge difference in the vote. Final results will be announced the week of July 22.

This week in “How’s this going to work again?” While the leadership contest consumes both Britain and Europe’s attention, the basic dilemmas that prevented Brexit from being delivered on time remain unresolved.

First, Parliament refuses to pass the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May, and the EU refuses to reopen negotiations unless it’s passed. Johnson says he can induce Brussels to return to the table through “positive energy” and by putting the possibility of a no-deal Brexit—which both sides want to avoid—back on the table. European leaders say this isn’t going to work, though it’s possible there’s more wiggle room than they’re letting on.

Even if talks are reopened, it’s still not clear how the participants can resolve the biggest stumbling block in negotiations: the hated Irish backstop. The Irish “trilemma” is still there: Britain can leave the EU’s Customs Union, it can keep the Northern Ireland–Republic of Ireland border open without customs checks, or it can keep Northern Ireland economically united with the rest of the U.K., but it can’t have all three of those things. The “backstop” in May’s withdrawal agreement avoids a hard border by keeping the U.K. as a whole in a customs union with Europe until arrangements can be reached to avoid customs checks. Without the backstop, there could be a return to a hard border, which many fear could endanger the region’s hard-won peace after decades of sectarian violence.

Johnson says that there are “technical fixes” to check goods crossing the border without the need for physical infrastructure, but it’s not clear that this technology exists yet.

A group of ex-Remainer Tory MPs this week released a plan to avoid border checks by using existing technology as well as a number of regulator fixes. But they stressed this would only work if there’s a deal in place and that this depends on what the Financial Times described as “extremely close co-operation between London, Dublin and Brussels.” Arguably, extremely close cooperation with Brussels was what Brexit was supposed to get rid of.

This week in jargon: Have you checked out that new GATT 24 yet?

Johnson has lately been saying that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the U.K.’s trade with the EU could continue without tariffs, and a hard border could be avoided during the “standstill” period while new arrangements are made. He’s basing this assertion on Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the legal agreement between several countries that set the framework for the World Trade Organization.

The only problem is that it’s “just not true,” according to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is backing Hunt. According to Hunt, GATT 24 only applies to countries that have agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement. In a no-deal scenario, this would by definition not be the case.

This week in the future of the union: Since the beginning, there have been questions about what Brexit would mean for the future unity of the United Kingdom, given that voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland—where there’s significant nationalist sentiment—voted Remain while England and Wales voted Leave.

Hunt, who has sketched out a somewhat softer position on Brexit than Johnson, wrote in the Times of London this week that he would prioritize preserving the union over leaving the EU. This earned him the support of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, has called for Scotland to hold another referendum on independence if the U.K. leaves the EU. Scots voted to remain part of the U.K. in the last referendum in 2014, but a lot has changed since then. It’s not hard to see support shifting further in the event of a no-deal Brexit and a government led by Johnson, who is very unpopular in Scotland.

A poll released last week in Northern Ireland found that half the region’s population now identifies as neither unionist nor nationalist, meaning they don’t support remaining part of the U.K. or unifying with the Republic of Ireland—which is pretty remarkable given the tension and violence this question provoked for decades. The rest of the U.K. is also fairly ambivalent. Only one-third of the populations says they’d mind if Northern Ireland voted to leave the union. The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein has called for a vote on unification after Brexit. Polls suggest that there’s still narrow support for remaining in the U.K., but much is still contingent on what Brexit eventually looks like and what it will mean for Northern Ireland.

Days until next deadline: 127