JOHNSON’S ‘DO OR DIE’ BREXIT PLEDGE
By Donnelly McCleland
On 24 July, Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and assumed the country’s top job. Following a campaign premised on delivering Brexit “do or die” by [the end of October] and with [fewer than 100] days until the departure deadline, Johnson wasted no time appointing a pro-Leave cabinet. Given EU resistance to re-negotiating the withdrawal agreement and a divided British Parliament, odds are increasing for a no-deal Brexit or a general election. (Channel News Asia)
How Johnson became prime minister
After three defeats of her Brexit deal and disastrous results in local and European Parliament elections, Theresa May conceded to Conservative Party discontent and stepped down as party leader. Ten Conservative Party (Tory) Members of Parliament (MPs) then stood in the leadership contest, with their parliamentary colleagues narrowing the choices to Boris Johnson and then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The 160,000 paid-up party members voted in postal ballots, with 66 percent selecting Boris Johnson. This gave him a mandate from less than 0.1 percent of the country, with a YouGov poll showing 58 percent of Britons viewing him negatively.
According to The Citizen: “It is a triumph for a man who has always wanted the top job, but Mr Johnson, known for his jokes and bluster, is taking over at a time of immense political upheaval.”
Major cabinet shake-up
On his first day, Mr Johnson wasted no time in creating his own team, with an unprecedented 17 ministers leaving government following the leadership change. Four ministers pre-emptively resigned, while Mr Johnson purged 13 others. Mr Johnson’s new team is predominantly made up of lawmakers from the right of the party – many of whom worked with him on the “Vote Leave” campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Each of the four so-called “great offices of state” (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary) had a new occupant.
Mr Johnson’s new cabinet is also the most diverse cabinet in British political history, to match the most diverse parliament that has ever been elected. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, made history as the first chancellor from an Asian-Muslim heritage. Priti Patel, appointed as Home Secretary, is the first ethnic minority woman to hold one of the “great offices of state”. Munira Mirza, daughter of Pakistani parents, was also appointed to a senior advisory position. But according to an opinion piece in The Independent: “The big question is whether his new top team can actually tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing [Britain’s] diverse communities.”
Mr Johnson also elevated a controversial political strategist, Dominic Cummings, to become his most senior advisor. Cummings has a reputation for being intelligent but abrasive and has reportedly angered even many Brexit-supporting lawmakers. According to Time Magazine, as a seasoned campaigner, Cummings’ appointment “stoked speculation that Mr Johnson could be planning a snap election to increase his majority in parliament, which is currently so low that controversial Brexit legislation is almost impossible to pass”.
Delivering Brexit “do or die”
Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) remains the most crucial challenge for the new Prime Minister. Three years after the referendum vote to leave the European Union, Britain remains a member, after twice delaying its exit amid continued wrangling in a divided parliament – and country – on how to proceed. Mr Johnson insists that the EU must reopen the withdrawal agreement and remove an Irish border provision (the ‘backstop’) that is opposed by Brexit-backing British lawmakers. The ‘backstop’ is an arrangement designed to ensure no hard border is erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both sides of the debate have insisted they will not build border infrastructure but Eurosceptic lawmakers in Britain are against any ‘backstop’, claiming it would keep Britain perpetually tied to a customs union with the EU.
The EU says it will not renegotiate the deal it struck with Theresa May, which British MPs have repeatedly rejected. Given the EU’s resistance to re-negotiating the withdrawal agreement and a divided British Parliament, odds are increasing for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit or a general election. The Bank of England has said if Britain does leave without a deal, there is a one-in-three chance of a British recession. A majority of lawmakers are against a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, including many of Mr Johnson’s colleagues. Pro-EU MPs are vowing to put up a fight once Parliament returns from its summer break on 3 September. They have two possible strategies: pass a law ruling out a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, or a vote of ‘no confidence’, toppling the government and replacing it with a new one that will abandon Mr Johnson’s hardline approach. Maddy Thimont Jack, a senior researcher on Brexit at the Institute for Government think-tank, said Britain was heading for a “war of attrition between the government and Parliament” with unpredictable consequences.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Mr Johnson has come under pressure from various Church leaders to find a compromise solution to the Brexit deadlock, and to avoid a ‘no-deal’ exit on 31 October. On the day Mr Johnson became Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on Twitter: “We pray for wisdom and courage at this time of great challenge as we work to build a shared vision for the future of the country and all its people.” Britain continues to face some incredibly challenging situations. There are difficulties both at home and abroad, and a controversial new leader like Mr Johnson is not going to make things easier. But it is often during such trying times when the Lord does a deep work in a nation, especially if it is prepared to call out to Him. Mr Johnson has admitted to not being a “serious practising Christian”, and therefore it will be the responsibility of British Christians and the Church to assume that tremendous responsibility of seeking the Lord on their nation’s behalf.
The Church Times (of 25 July) reported on various Church leaders’ thoughts and concerns at this critical time. A letter to Mr Johnson, issued by the Joint Public Issues Team, said that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit would “put at risk the welfare and safety of the poorest communities in Britain”. The letter was signed by leaders of seven denominations, including the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland. It is stated in the letter: “The impacts of a no-deal Brexit are at best highly uncertain, and at worst deeply worrying. Our view that it would put at risk the welfare and safety of the poorest communities in Britain is formed on the basis of the best available evidence, including our presence in local communities in every part of Britain. It is notable that assurances about our ability to cope with a no-deal Brexit, while frequent, are yet to be supported by substantial evidence…”
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell said that Mr Johnson “should focus on a cross-party way of working to achieve the very best outcome for this, the greatest peacetime challenge of our national life in living memory”. He continued: “This might also begin to bring the country back together. I don’t think he will achieve it, because hitherto I have seen no sign that he has any desire to even unite his own party, let alone Parliament. But I believe in the unexpected vicissitudes of grace, and would be delighted to be proved wrong.”
Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons Rose Hudson-Wilkin said that bringing “healing” should be the priority. “Anything else, including Brexit, is secondary. If the [Prime Minister] fails in achieving this, then we all fail.”
The Conservative MP Sir Gary Streeter, who chairs Christians in Parliament, said that Mr Johnson “must focus on Brexit”. He risked endangering trust in democracy if he did not manage to deliver an exit by 31 October, Sir Gary said.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman (a Conservative MP), called on Mr Johnson to foster “reconciliation”. She continued: “Our nation is so divided and desperately needs to be brought back together. We need to stop defining people as Leavers or Remainers and work together as one nation.”
It is clear from the above comments that not even all Church leaders are in total agreement on the way forward. However, there is a recurring theme of the need for unity and healing for a deeply divided nation. Based on early indications, Mr Johnson is not demonstrating a reconciliatory tone, so Church leaders and believers need to shoulder that task and seize the opportunities that times of deep uncertainty bring.
- For Mr Johnson to make wise decisions for the benefit of his nation
- For the Church to rise up to the challenge of uniting a deeply divided country
- For believers to intercede on their nation’s behalf during this crucial period