After a very long, drawn-out, but not particularly suspenseful leadership contest, the people—.002 percent of them anyway—have spoken. There’s a new prime minister now and everything is different. Also nothing is really different.
This week in Boris: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson formally became prime minister on Wednesday, replacing Theresa May, after being announced as the new leader of the Conservative Party on Tuesday. Johnson, who had a controversial career as a journalist before serving as mayor of London and then May’s foreign secretary, may be more closely associated with Brexit than any other major British political figure. He led the “leave” campaign during the 2016 referendum, left May’s cabinet over opposition to her withdrawal agreement, and based his campaign for leadership on a pledge to pull Britain out the European Union by Oct. 31—the current deadline—with or without one. That’s easier said than done.
In keeping with Johnson’s whole vibe, his final ascent to power was a little ramshackle and included some questionable humor. In his victory speech on Tuesday, Johnson riffed on his campaign pledges to deliver Brexit, unite the country, and defeat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn:
“Some wag has already pointed out that deliver, unite and defeat was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since unfortunately it spells ‘dud’. But they forgot the final ‘E’ my friends. ‘E’ for energize. And I say to all the doubters: dude, we are going to energize the country.”
You really need to watch the video to appreciate the strangeness of Boris Johnson saying the word “dude.”
After meeting the queen on Wednesday, (and committing a minor breach of protocol by retelling one of her jokes) and dodging climate change protesters, Johnson formally entered Downing Street, promising “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong again. We are going to fulfill the repeated promises of Parliament to the people and come out of the EU on Oct. 31, no ifs or buts, and we will do a new deal, a better deal.”
Then the purge began.
Johnson cleared out 18 of the 29 ministers from Theresa May’s cabinet, and many of those that remain have new jobs. Hardline Brexiteer Dominic Raab is the new foreign minister. Such-a Brexiteer-it-hurts Jacob Rees-Mogg is now leader of the house of commons. Erstwhile Johnson nemesis and slightly dubious Brexiteer Michael Gove is now head of the Cabinet Office, a position that for extremely British reasons is technically called “Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.” He will be tasked with preparations for a no-deal Brexit, which is a great job to give someone you hate.
This week in what comes next: In his first speech to parliament, Johnson declared Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which has been rejected by parliament three times, to be “unacceptable.” He also promised to do away with the controversial “Irish backstop,” which ensures that Britain will remain in a customs union with the EU until the two can agree on a future economic relationship that wouldn’t impose border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Under a hard Brexit scenario, goods crossing the land border between the U.K. and the EU would need to be checked for compliance with customs regulations. It’s feared that this would not only hurt businesses but threaten the region’s fragile peace. On the other hand, Brexiteers view the backstop as a roundabout way of keeping the U.K. in a customs union indefinitely.
EU leaders have repeatedly stated, and stated again this week, that they will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, but are willing to discuss the non-binding “political declaration” that accompanies the idea. Some in Brussels may have hoped that Johnson might try to gussy up May’s deal with a new political arrangement and use his Brexiteer credibility to sell it to a skeptical parliament, but that doesn’t seem to be the plan. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called Johnson’s suggestion that he could renegotiate the whole deal by Oct. 31, “totally not the real world.” The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier called it “totally unacceptable.” As has been the case for years now, the Ireland question is likely to be the key stumbling block for Johnson’s hopes of pulling off Brexit with a deal in three months.
And if he can’t? Johnson says that leaving without a deal, which economists believe would be disastrous, is not his preference, but with his statements this week and his cabinet picks he’s also signaling very hard that he’s willing to do it. Many members of parliament, including some of those that Johnson has just kicked out of the cabinet, are dead set against allowing that top happen. This means that in the next three months, Boris will have to bulldoze his way through Brussels, through parliament, or possibly through both.
Days until next deadline: 99