We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

July 24, 2019

Johnson has more options than you think

The big news is that something that was going to happen, did happen.

So, where now? There is broad consensus among political commentators in the UK, and especially in the rest of the world, that Johnson is flaky and will fail to get anything done - including Brexit. We cannot rule out that this might indeed happen. But our view on him right now is more nuanced. He may play the jester, but he is no fool. The fools are usually those who are distracted by appearances. 

The first thing we note is that political events are conspiring in his favour. One of those is the decision by Jeremy Corbyn to postpone a no-confidence vote until after the UK parliament returns from its holiday on Sep 3. The timing is critical. As we explained in a previous article, this gives Johnson time to seek a new deal while retaining at least the option to trigger a no-deal Brexit since parliament would be suspended during an election campaign.

The interim-leader scenario is also becoming less likely. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a vote of no confidence would give the Commons an opportunity to replace Johnson with an interim prime minister. But that would require unity among opposition parties, which is simply not there. Jo Swinson, the newly LibDem leader, said yesterday that she will not enter into coalition with Corbyn, provoking a furious response from Labour. She was a business minister in the Tory/LibDem coalition under David Cameron. Her election as party leader has reopened old wounds.

Readers might also want to cast their eye towards the second big news item yesterday. It concerns Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who has been engulfed in a sordid scandal involving false child-abuse allegations. Watson has been, until now, the most effective and most senior Labour campaigner in favour of a second referendum, and his political future is now in doubt.

So, in the week that Johnson takes over, the opposition is less effective than it was a week earlier. And there is no sign yet of a Tory rebellion against Johnson. The scenario in which such a rebellion could unfold - Johnson actively seeking a no-deal Brexit - might never come.

One of Johnson’s most important and immediate strategic decisions will be whether to trigger elections before October, or deliver Brexit first and hold elections afterwards. 

We think he will try to negotiate a new deal first. The EU will, of course, not agree to big changes. It will certainly not drop the Irish backstop. But what it could offer, a combination of a longer transition period with a new political declaration, might still generate a useful smokescreen.

It is hard to predict whether the Commons would vote in favour of a revamped deal. We know that some Labour MPs are more open to supporting the withdrawal deal now than they were before. But as we game this scenario further down the line, more uncertainty sets in. Corbyn may recover. Or he may be replaced. Johnson’s honeymoon may be over. The mood in the country could shift in one or the other direction. It is a mug’s game to make a prediction.

What suggests that Johnson will at least have a go at serious negotiations was his appointment yesterday of David Frost as his new EU sherpa. Frost is a former special adviser to Johnson, with a lot of experience of European affairs.

Our own recommendation to Johnson would be to seek immediate elections. But this is not a forecast of what will happen. We think that Labour is currently in its most vulnerable position. Corbyn’s popularity is at an all-time low. Watson is a diminished figure. The stench of anti-semitism still hangs over the Labour party. And the party's Brexit strategy is still not settled. We also expect to the pro-Remain vote to split more than the pro-Leave vote. 

The Tories currently have a working majority of two seats - including those of the Northern Irish DUP. On August 1, they will almost certainly lose another seat in a by-election in Wales, so the majority will be down to one. Minority governments can, on occasion, be surprisingly stable. But Brexit cannot be delivered, let alone managed, with such a small majority. We agree with the Times columnist and Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein that an election will be forced on Johnson sooner or later, and his chances will never be as good as they are now. 

But this view goes against the conventional wisdom in Westminster, that Johnson’s main objective is to avoid going down as the shortest-lived prime minister in British history. The trouble with that argument is that this might happen in any case.

Show Comments Write a Comment

July 24, 2019

A Franco-German initiative to redistribute migrants

A new 'solidarity' system to distribute migrants saved in the Mediterranean emerged from a meeting of interior and foreign ministers in Paris. Emmanuel Macron said fourteen EU countries supported the Franco-German proposal. It is a first step towards something concrete that could work more efficiently than the dysfunctional quota system. It aims to deliver quick and automatic solutions to end the diplomatic haggling over rescues in the Mediterranean. We have not seen the details of the proposal yet, but the signs are that it adds to the friction with Italy.

Aside from Italy there are other important absentees. Support for the plan is not solid yet. Only eight of the fourteen are actively supporting the new mechanism. The Élysée palace named France, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland. The other countries were not even named, nor were the details of the mechanism revealed. 

Most important, however, is the absence of Italy. Matteo Salvini snubbed the meeting and, in a letter to his French counterpart at the interior ministry, he warned against decisions solely taken by Berlin and Paris. He said Italy does not take orders and is not a partner to this agreement. If Macron wants to discuss migrants, he has to come to Rome, said Salvini. 

Is it a good idea to proceed without the Italians? After all they have been the main recipient of migrants in the EU. Salvini complained that this agreement just confirms Italy's role as Europe's refugee camp. Will rescue boats bring migrants to those countries that support the new agreement? At the moment NGO boats must try to find a country ready to admit  migrants and refugees each time they are rescued, leading to time-consuming negotiations between EU member states. 

Show Comments Write a Comment

This is the public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing, which focuses on the geopolitical aspects of our news coverage. It appears daily at 2pm CET. The full briefing, which appears at 9am CET, is only available to subscribers. Please click here for a free trial, and here for the Eurointelligence home page.


Recent News

  • September 17, 2019
  • Beware of the diplomacy of humiliation
  • Germany’s climate hypocrisy
  • March 18, 2019
  • May's deal still on the table. Don't rule it out.
  • EPP decision on Fidesz still open
  • On the defeat of liberalism
  • September 21, 2018
  • SPD ministers want to continue grand coalition
  • March 28, 2018
  • The real reason for the sanctions against Russia
  • Wishful thinking: Brexit edition
  • Wishful thinking: Future of euro edition
  • Wishful thinking: Italy edition
  • October 02, 2017
  • Catalonia recalls EU and eurozone instability
  • French trade unions increase pressure over labour reforms
  • Watch out for a political accident in the UK
  • Municipal elections boost Portugal's Socialists
  • April 10, 2017
  • Nein, nein, nein, und nein
  • Sounds like a bad Brexit story, but ain’t
  • On how not to exit the euro
  • October 17, 2016
  • Ceta is dead for now
  • L’après-Hollande, c'est Hollande
  • SPD against Russia sanctions
  • Nissan to join customs union and other fanciful tales
  • April 25, 2016
  • The death of the Grand Coalition
  • Insurrection against TTIP
  • Juppé to benefit from Macron hype
  • On optimal currency areas
  • Why the Artic region could be the next geopolitical troublespot
  • From a currency to a people
  • January 24, 2020
  • Is Germany anti-semitic and racist?
  • Did the Greek financial crisis play a role in Brexit?
  • September 18, 2019
  • No doubt, this is a constitutional crisis
  • Macron's immigration bid
  • May 13, 2019
  • Brexit Party has already changed UK politics
  • Orbán visits Trump, after a very long wait
  • Le Pen's appeal to the PiS likely to fall on deaf ears
  • January 04, 2019
  • Will the AfD become the Dexit party?
  • Romania's corruption problem in the spotlight of its EU presidency
  • August 28, 2018
  • Urban politics and national crisis - the Irish case
  • How anti-semitism became one of the main issues in British politics
  • April 25, 2018
  • Macron's pitch to Trump
  • Montoro in Schleswig-Holstein
  • The old world and the new
  • December 22, 2017
  • Will Macron be the new de Gaulle?
  • 2018 through the looking glass
  • August 21, 2017
  • Soft, getting softer
  • Tsipras' chances of a boost
  • On the fallacy of a middle-ground option for the eurozone
  • April 20, 2017
  • Don’t bet on Trump turning globalist
  • A note on UK election polls
  • December 20, 2016
  • The politics of terror
  • On Lagarde
  • Is a disruptive Brexit possible?
  • August 22, 2016
  • Gold for Brexit
  • EU and Turkey talking past each other
  • Switzerland is the next migrant transit country
  • On the death of neoliberal economics
  • April 25, 2016
  • The death of the Grand Coalition
  • Insurrection against TTIP
  • Juppé to benefit from Macron hype
  • On optimal currency areas
  • Why the Artic region could be the next geopolitical troublespot
  • From a currency to a people
  • February 12, 2020
  • Turkey's standoff with Russia over Idlib
  • Watch out for Renzi
  • January 24, 2020
  • Is Germany anti-semitic and racist?
  • Did the Greek financial crisis play a role in Brexit?
  • January 06, 2020
  • A decade that started with a bang
  • What to expect of Spain's next government
  • Divide et impera: Macron's pension reform strategy
  • December 18, 2019
  • Wirtschaftswunder kaputt
  • December 02, 2019
  • Will pension reform protests spiral out of control?
  • Malta's PM resigns over murder case
  • November 18, 2019
  • Is Macron facing another uprise against elites?
  • Forget the inflation target: Lagarde’s job is much bigger.
  • November 04, 2019
  • Brexit tactical voting is happening - on both sides
  • Merkel promises 1m charging stations - but doesn't tell us how
  • October 22, 2019
  • High stake poker with Turkey
  • Without EU accession prospect, what is at stake for Macedonia?
  • October 11, 2019
  • Referendum numbers are edging up - slowly
  • Goulard's foreboding rejection
  • Turkey advances in Syria and threatens Europe
  • September 30, 2019
  • A pyrrhic victory for Kurz
  • Will there really be UK elections?
  • September 19, 2019
  • Italy's 2020 budget will be a moment of truth
  • Austria's soft faced far-right
  • September 10, 2019
  • Beware of the Salvini trap
  • After the diesel car, now goes the SUV
  • September 02, 2019
  • Prorogation already served its purpose - events will come to a head this week
  • EU citizens in the UK are the biggest victims of no-deal Brexit
  • August 27, 2019
  • Remain’s narrowing pathway
  • Macron's diplomatic masterstroke
  • August 07, 2019
  • No, the UK parliament will not stop a no-deal Brexit
  • Is no deal a case for a poll on Irish unity?
  • August 02, 2019
  • A useful object lesson of what can go wrong for Johnson
  • Maréchal - a rising star on the French right?
  • Could Steve re-ignite the gilets jaunes?
  • July 29, 2019
  • No-deal Brexit is no longer just a scenario
  • No German warships to the Strait of Hormuz
  • July 26, 2019
  • Could Johnson succeed?
  • Turkey's retaliation
  • July 25, 2019
  • What should the EU do now?
  • Could the grand coalition break down over defence spending?
  • July 24, 2019
  • Johnson has more options than you think
  • A Franco-German initiative to redistribute migrants