Britain is getting a new prime minister. Buckle up for a rocky ride.
On Tuesday, the U.K.’s governing Conservatives will announce the winner of a contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the party and the country. Just over three months later, on Oct. 31, Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.
With the new British leader on a collision course with both the EU and Britain’s Parliament over Brexit, the U.K. could be heading for a political crisis, a recession, an election, a referendum — or several of those options at the same time.
“It’s a very fluid situation, said Nick Wright, an expert on EU politics at University College London. “Literally, anything could happen.”
Barring a major upset, Britain’s next prime minister will be Boris Johnson. The buoyant former foreign secretary is so far ahead with bookies and pollsters that it will be a huge shock if rival Jeremy Hunt is declared the victor on Tuesday.
Johnson, who sometimes has an ambiguous relationship with facts, campaigned with characteristic bluster, vowing to revive the country’s “mojo” and making one main promise: Britain will leave the EU on Oct. 31, “come what may.”
He may find that promise hard to keep. The new leader heads a government with no parliamentary majority in a deeply divided country that is facing off with a mistrustful EU.
The prime minister is due to take office Wednesday in a smoothly choreographed political handover. May will travel to Buckingham Palace and ask Queen Elizabeth II to invite her Conservative successor to form a government. Johnson — or, less likely, Hunt — will speak to the nation in front of his new home at 10 Downing St. that afternoon.
The new leader could face a challenge before he’s even had a chance to unpack. The opposition Labour Party is considering calling a no-confidence vote in the Conservative government on Thursday. It would only take a handful of Conservative rebels to defeat the government and — unless it can overturn that vote within 14 days — trigger an early election.
The good news for the prime minister is that Parliament is due to start its six-week summer break on Friday and Labour will probably decide to wait until the fall before making a move.
MAKE ME AN OFFER
Both Johnson and Hunt say they will immediately start talks with the EU about changing the Brexit withdrawal agreement agreed upon by May’s government, a pact that has been rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament.
Yet Britain may struggle to get the bloc’s full attention during August, a sleepy holiday period in much of Europe. And in any case, EU leaders have insisted they won’t renegotiate. They also have a special distrust for Johnson, who began his career as a Brussels-based journalist spinning exaggerated stories of outrageous EU red tape for a British newspaper.
Johnson, like Hunt, says the key to winning Parliament’s backing for a Brexit deal is to ditch the “backstop,” an insurance policy designed to guarantee that the U.K’s only land border with the EU — between Northern Ireland and Ireland — remains free of customs posts and other obstacles.
The EU, however, is adamant that without the backstop there can be no deal.
“Part of me thinks that Prime Minister Boris Johnson thinks he can just get away with it through sheer force of personality,” Wright said. “But I don’t see why the EU would make compromises to him that they wouldn’t make to Theresa May.”
DESTINATION NO DEAL
The new leader’s EU negotiations will go hand-in-hand with intensified British planning for a no-deal exit: bolstering border staff, working with businesses and reassuring the public. Johnson claims that if Britain prepares properly, a no-deal Brexit will be “vanishingly inexpensive.”
Experts disagree. The government’s Office for Budget Responsibility said last week that crashing out of the bloc would shrink the British economy by 2% within a year, drive down the pound currency and plunge Britain into a prolonged recession.
Leaving without a deal would mean tariffs and customs checks for goods traveling between Britain and the EU, and would rip up thousands of rules governing everything from trade to aviation to telecommunications.
The House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee says a no-deal Brexit “could lead to severe disruption of the economy, pose a fundamental risk to the competitiveness of key sectors of the U.K. economy and put many jobs and livelihoods at risk.”
While some British lawmakers think the dire warnings are exaggerated, a majority is determined to halt a no-deal Brexit. In a pre-emptive strike, lawmakers last week passed a measure that prevents the new prime minister from suspending Parliament in the fall — something Johnson has suggested he could do if legislators try to stop Brexit.
But halting a prime minister who is determined to press for a no-deal Brexit could be hard. By law, Britain will cease to be a member of the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, unless Britain revokes its decision or the EU grants a delay.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said last week that the chances of a no-deal Brexit have been “underpriced.”
“I think it’s the will of many members of Parliament for there to be a deal. But the question then will be ‘is there a deal that is palatable to Parliament?’” he told Parliament’s Leaving the European Union Committee. “And if not, will Parliament vote to revoke or will we leave with no deal?”
The crisis could come to a head at an EU summit on Oct. 17, just two weeks before Brexit day. EU leaders are sick of the Brexit soap opera, and could resist if Britain asks for a further delay. Newly elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says Britain can have an extension if it’s for a strong reason such as an election or a new referendum.
Britain is not scheduled to have an election until 2022, but could hold an early poll if the government loses a no-confidence vote, or if the prime minister calls one to seek a mandate for his version of Brexit.
An election might shake up Parliament and break the Brexit deadlock, but could also result in yet another divided legislature. Another potential deadlock-breaker, a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership, could settle the issue, or prove as divisive as the last.
Once Britain does leave the bloc, its leader faces a fresh set of challenges in negotiating new trade deals around the world. The most coveted deal is with the United States, but “America First” President Donald Trump is guaranteed to drive a hard bargain.
A visit to Washington will be high on the new prime minister’s agenda. Trump has warmly praised Johnson, but he can be a fickle friend.
Inconsistency of speech is something he and Johnson have in common.
Johnson may be hoping no one reminds Trump that in 2015 he accused him of “stupefying ignorance” and said Trump was “unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.”
Last month, Johnson said the American president had “many good qualities.”