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Sunday, 13 October 2019

The United Kingdom: A disunited kingdom?

New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s high-risk strategy may have catastrophic consequences for the future of the United Kingdom, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Friday 2 Aug 2019
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Boris Johnson
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It was a reception from hell, as new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on his first trip to Scotland was booed by protesters as he arrived at Bute House in Edinburgh, the official residence of Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, for talks, later leaving by the back door.

There is no love lost between Johnson and Scotland, where the majority of the population voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 Referendum. In the eyes of many in Scotland, Johnson is simply another arrogant English politician who wants to force the Scots on a path they do not want to take.

Given the complex history between England and Scotland, the United Kingdom’s future unity stands on shaky ground in a Johnson premiership. Johnson once called for any Scot to be barred from becoming British prime minister because “government by a Scot is just not conceivable.”

In an article in The Spectator magazine in April 2005, Johnson wrote about the possibility of the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, a Scotsman, replacing Tony Blair.

“That would be utterly outrageous, not just because he is a gloomadon-popping, interfering, high-taxing complicator of life, but mainly because he is a Scot, and government by a Scot is just not conceivable in the current constitutional context,” Johnson wrote.

While editor of the magazine, Johnson republished a poem by writer James Michiewhich calling Scottish people “vermin” who should be placed in “ghettos”.

If Johnson’s recent trip to the northern part of the United Kingdom aimed at emphasising the strength of the union, he achieved the opposite result because of his hard-line on Brexit. The new prime minster has been accused by Sturgeon of intentionally pushing the UK towards a no-deal Brexit and pursuing a “dangerous” strategy with EU leaders.

Speaking to reporters after Johnson had left her residence in Edinburgh, Sturgeon, who is eager to hold a second referendum on the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom, said that “behind all the bluff and bluster, this is a government that is dangerous. The path that it is pursuing is a dangerous one, for Scotland and for all of the UK.”

“He says that he wants a deal with EU, but there is no clarity whatsoever about how he thinks he can get from the position now where he’s taking a very hard line… to a deal,” she said.

For many observers, Johnson’s visit to Scotland looked poorly planned, and his promise to spend £300 million on poorer cities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland only showed that after leaving the EU many regions in the UK would suffer and would not make up for the billions they would lose after exiting the EU.

Nonetheless, for Sturgeon and the Scottish nationalists Johnson may still be “a gift from heaven”. Her Scottish National Party (SNP) hopes to organise a second referendum on Scotland’s independence, and Johnson’s government, hated in Scotland, may give the SNP the ammunition it needs to convince voters that their future will be better outside the UK.

Recent polls have showed increased support for Scotland’s independence.

This has been helped by the ambiguity hanging over Johnson’s strategy. He has announced that he will not accept the withdrawal agreement as it stands, demanding a new one without the controversial “backstop” over the Northern Irish border.

However, he has not clarified his alternatives, leaving the ball in the court of the EU when it comes to new ideas.

With only 90 days left before the Brexit deadline on 31 October, many now believe that Johnson has calculated that it will be almost impossible to reach a compromise with the EU, meaning that he is making unrealistic demands before early elections.

“What Johnson has said since replacing Theresa May as prime minister is not a negotiating position with the EU, but an electoral position to attract right-wing conservative voters who defected to the Brexit Party under the leadership of Nigel Farage,” Hilda Greg, an activist in the Remain Campaign, told Al-Ahram Weekly. 

“The right wing of the Conservative Party obviously seeks to unify the Brexit vote. The question is whether the opposition parties can unite the remain vote,” she said.

Since taking office, Johnson has given the Tories a ten-point “Boris bounce” and a five-point lead over the opposition Labour Party in the polls. The pressure on Johnson to call a snap general election will be increased by survey findings that if Labour ditches Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Tories could trail by six points.

A recent Deltapoll survey put the Tories on 30 per cent of the vote, up from 20 per cent in a poll for the UK Daily Mail newspaper at the start of the summer and turning a six-point lead for Corbyn over May into a five-point advantage for Johnson. 

However, the rising popularity of the Conservatives does not mean they will win a majority in an early election. According to the figures, if elections are held tomorrow, Johnson would garner worse results than May in the 2017 elections, with the Conservatives winning around 300 seats compared to May’s 317.

Gambling on early elections could thus be a dangerous game that could explode in Johnson’s face.

 

EARLY CHAOS: Even before the end of his first week in office, cracks were emerging in Johnson’s strategy.

He told reporters in Scotland that there should be no assumption in favour of leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October in direct contradiction to remarks by his own deputy official spokeswoman and by Michael Gove, a cabinet minister, who said the government was “working on the assumption” that EU leaders would not change their minds and was proceeding with preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson also claimed he was “reaching out” to EU leaders to strike a deal, even though his official spokeswoman said he had made it clear that there was no point in holding face-to-face talks unless the EU agreed to scrap the Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement.

“The prime minister has been clear that he wants to meet EU leaders and negotiate, but not to sit down and be told that the EU cannot possibly reopen the withdrawal agreement,” she said.

 “The EU has said up to now it is not willing to renegotiate [the backstop]… The prime minister would be happy to sit down with leaders when that position changes. But he is making it clear to everybody he speaks to that that needs to happen.”

The statement came despite invitations from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron for Johnson to hold talks.

On a visit to the UK Trident nuclear base at Faslane in Scotland on Monday, Johnson painted a more optimistic picture of the prospects for talks, telling reporters that “we are not aiming for a no-deal Brexit at all. What we want is to get a deal, and I’ve had some interesting conversations with our European partners. I’ve talked to [the European Commission President] Jean-Claude [Juncker] and Angela Merkel and we’re reaching out today to [the Irish Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar. The feeling is, yes there’s no change in their position, but it’s very, very positive.”

“I believe in reaching out. I’ve already been talking to colleagues around the table in Brussels, I have absolutely no inhibitions about that. We are going to engage and obviously ask for very profound changes to the current basis for leaving the EU,” he added.

A European Commission spokesperson referred to a phone call between Juncker and Johnson last week when the outgoing Commission president said that the bloc would not change the Brexit agreement finalised with May but remained open to changing the text of the additional political declaration.

“We have agreed a withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom government. The deal we have achieved is the best deal possible. We are willing to add language to the political declaration, but we will not reopen the withdrawal agreement,” the spokesman said.

In his campaign to replace May as prime minister, Johnson devoted his efforts to persuading Conservative Party members that he was the best person to implement Brexit with or without a deal.

His campaign did not address the fears of the 48 per cent of the population who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and with many people changing their minds the opinion polls are now saying that the Remainers have reached 52 per cent.

Johnson is also failing to address the worries of the people of Scotland, who are sensitive about a Westminster government telling them what to do, or the people of Northern Ireland, who fear the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian war in the province.

There are also considerable worries in Wales regarding the impact of Brexit on the Welsh economy.

The political direction of travel under Johnson’s premiership remains unclear, which means Britain will likely face further turmoil threatening the future unity of the United Kingdom.

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