Manchester, England (CNN)Boris Johnson has set the UK on course for a Brexit showdown.
So far, so predictable — and the audience of party activists and lawmaker duly lapped it up. Johnson, after all, is the man who will “get Brexit done.”
But his language on Britain’s broader relationship with Europe was markedly softer. “This is not an anti-European party and it is not an anti-European country. We love Europe,” he sad. The response from the conference hall was decidedly muted. “Well, I do, anyway,” he muttered.
Whatever the reaction to Johnson in Manchester, it doesn’t change the scale of the challenge he faces both in Westminster and Brussels.
Johnson later published a letter to the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, setting out plans for a new Brexit deal, the existing one having been rejected three times in Parliament. Downing Street briefed before the speech that this would be a “final” offer to the EU. If Brussels doesn’t like it, Johnson said in his speech that the UK is perfectly ready for no deal.
It’s currently unclear if Brussels will engage with the plans. Johnson’s letter is vague and, on first reading, still might breach some of the EU’s red lines.
So, what is the Prime Minister up to?
The truth is that the PM is politically stuck. He wants to get a Brexit deal, but one that makes him look like he forced Brussels to back down. It needs it to be soft enough that opposition lawmakers will vote for it in the House of Commons, but firm enough that it’s not seen as a sellout by his own hardline Brexiteers.
He also needs to signal to voters that he has done everything in his power to drag Brexit over the line, while demonstrating to Brexit moderates that he hasn’t been irresponsible.
All of which explains why Johnson simultaneously professes that no-deal is “not an outcome we seek at all,” yet “it is an outcome for which we are ready,” accompanied by a plan that is unacceptable to the EU.
The PM trying to speak out of both sides of his mouth because he thinks an election is coming. And that election might come after he is forced to request an extension to the Article 50 process and delay Brexit.
While Johnson would much prefer an election after Brexit is done, it might not be up to him. Legislation has been passed by Johnson’s opponents in Parliament to demand that he requests an extension, should no deal be agreed between the UK and the EU. Should he choose to ignore that law, he could be faced with legal problems that are unprecedented for a sitting Prime Minister — even one who was recently slapped down by the UK Supreme Court.
Yet, despite Johnson saying he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, it might not be so bad to be dragged kicking and screaming across that ditch by meddlesome judges. It would give Johnson an easy election campaig in which he could present himself as the only major party leader that wants to deliver Brexit. If he gets a majority, it’s a done deal.
We will soon find out the precise details of the Johnson Brexit plan and whether it really is a final offer or a shock tactic designed to force the EU into further talks.
“Unless the proposals are a starting point, it’s very hard to see both sides going into a tunnel to try and finalize a deal,” says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group think tank. “If this is indeed the final offer, it’s very hard to see a landing zone between the two sides.”
If the EU is not willing to negotiate, Johnson will be be pressurized hard to request that Brexit extension. Johnson can then march around the UK and legitimately claim to be the only political big beast committed to getting Brexit done. And as he does so, he will alienate moderate voters.
If the EU does negotiate, Johnson’s opponents on the right will be able to legitimately claim that Johnson keeling to Brussels, and he will lose voters to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
On the whole, Boris Johnson can judge his first party conference as Prime Minister to have been a success. But it also marked a new phase in the Johnson premiership, as he tries to appeal to moderates, Brexiteers, Conservatives and liberal internationalists alike.
The problem for Johnson is that doing so might be impossible. Eventually, he will need to pick a side.
In his speech, the Prime Minister spoke about his love of buses. Sooner or later, he’ll have to throw someone under one.
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