Brexit itself remains in a holding pattern until the end of this month when the Conservative party membership selects the next prime minister, but there were still plenty of developments this week giving a sense of how things might look once he’s in office.
This week in Washington: The downfall of the British government’s man in Washington this week wasn’t directly Brexit-related, but it’s hard to imagine it happening quite the same way in any other political context. Kim Darroch, who had served as ambassador to the United States since 2016, resigned this week after the Daily Mail published excerpts of diplomatic cables in which he gave his blunt—though hardly shocking—assessments of the Trump administration’s dysfunction, which then prompted the president to unleash a barrage of angry tweets toward him and Prime Minister Theresa May.
Given that the White House was effectively freezing him out, Darroch may have had to resign anyway, but the death blow came in a televised debate on Tuesday night between the two finalists in the race for prime minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Hunt, the current foreign secretary, backed Darroch and said he would keep him in his position, but Johnson—the heavy favorite—refused several opportunities to make the same pledge. Darroch resigned the next day.
According to the Times, May is considering naming Darroch’s replacement as one of her last acts in office, but most likely the decision will fall to her replacement. While the incident is unlikely to affect the outcome of the race, Johnson’s critics are pointing to it as an example of him siding with his political ally, President Donald Trump, over a veteran diplomat who was just doing his job.
Johnson may be looking for ways to placate Trump in hopes of winning a favorable post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. There are concerns that the U.S. administration could drive a hard bargain on controversial issues such as insisting Britain lower its food safety standards to allow U.S. meat imports or allowing U.S. firms to bid on contracts within the National Health Service.
This week in ex-PMs: Both Johnson and Hunt are still saying (whether they really mean it is another matter) that they plan to pull Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, the current Brexit deadline. Given the political realities and the timing, this would probably mean leaving without a trade deal, a move experts warn could have dire economic consequences and lead to the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Most members of Parliament oppose a no-deal Brexit and could try to prevent it by either passing a law forcing the next PM to delay Brexit or holding a vote of no confidence in the government.
This has raised the possibility that the next prime minister could attempt to prorogue Parliament—basically asking the queen to shut it down—to prevent them from interfering. Hunt has ruled out doing this, but Johnson has said he won’t take the option off the table.
This week, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who served from 1990 to 1997, said that if Johnson tries this stunt, he’ll challenge it in court.
Not only does this underline the degree of division and bitterness within the Conservative party over Brexit, it also raises the bizarre possibility that the queen could suddenly find herself in the middle of the Brexit mess, as she’d have to decide whether to honor Johnson’s request.
Major told the BBC, “The Queen’s decision cannot be challenged in law but the prime minister’s advice to the Queen can, I believe, be challenged in law—and I for one would be prepared to seek judicial review to prevent Parliament being bypassed.”
This week in Brussels: The EU is also in the midst of a leadership transition, with leaders haggling over who will take over the body’s top jobs in the wake of last May’s European Parliament election. EU leaders have nominated German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to take over the most powerful of those jobs, EU commission president (currently held by Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker). She would be the first woman to hold the position and has the backing of the center-right European People’s Party, the largest bloc in the European Parliament. The Parliament will vote on whether to confirm her next week, and it’s not a foregone conclusion: She faces opposition from leftist and Green parties over her stances on Saudi Arabia, military intervention, climate change, and other issues.
If she is confirmed, it’s not going to bode well for Johnson’s hopes to reopen the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May. In hearings this week, von der Leyen stuck with the EU line saying she would not reopen talks and that she would defend the controversial “Irish backstop”—the provision in the agreement that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland. She did indicate that she would be open to a further extension of Brexit beyond the current Halloween deadline, something that some EU leaders—particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron—have expressed skepticism about.
The upshot of all of this is that not much has actually changed in terms of the Brexit possibilities. Johnson could negotiate some minor cosmetic changes to May’s withdrawal agreement—an agreement he found so objectionable that he quit her Cabinet over it—and then sell it to a Parliament that has already rejected it three times with sheer charisma and Brexiteer credibility. He could go back on his signature campaign pledge and get another extension, raising a host of scenarios including a new referendum. Or he could barrel ahead with a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, leaving Parliament, John Major, and possibly even the queen in his wake.
Days until next deadline: 113