Johnson’s Resignation Leaves the U.K. in Turmoil—and the EU on Edge

Johnson’s Resignation Leaves the U.K. in Turmoil—and the EU on Edge
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 7, 2022 (AP photo by Alberto Pezzali).
After having survived months of seemingly unending controversies and scandals, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today that he is stepping down as the leader of the ruling Conservative Party. Until just days ago, Johnson appeared to be untouchable. But a sex scandal in which he was not personally involved led to new revelations of his having lied about what he knew and when, becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back. The big question for the Tories now is, Who will succeed Johnson as party leader and prime minister? Before Johnson’s resignation, the U.K. spent the better part of this week careening toward a constitutional crisis, as Johnson initially defied calls to resign from his positions as party leader and prime minister, despite having lost the majority of his Cabinet to resignations and being faced with the prospect of another leadership challenge from rebels in his party. The political gridlock in the U.K. underscored how much of a threat Johnson’s endless scandals posed to British governance, and increasingly drew comparisons to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat following the 2020 presidential election. But his resignation as the leader of the Conservatives notwithstanding, Johnson remains recalcitrant, insisting on staying on as caretaker prime minister until the Tories elect a new leader. That exercise could take months, given the lack of a clear successor and the sheer number of aspirants for the job. As a result, many party members have come out strongly against the idea, saying that Johnson must resign the premiership as well. And many of the more than 50 government ministers and senior officials who resigned over the past 48 hours have conditioned their willingness to return to their former posts in a caretaker capacity on Johnson stepping aside as prime minister.

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In reality, as of this afternoon Johnson has practically no government left to speak of. Five Cabinet ministers—including Rishi Sunak, the high-profile chancellor of the exchequer— have resigned. Another, Michael Gove, was fired after he reportedly urged Johnson to resign yesterday. And newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak only yesterday, demanded today that Johnson step down immediately. He is now desperately trying to assemble a caretaker Cabinet, but many Conservatives view joining it as a political kiss of death. The rules for the contest to select Johnson’s successor as party leader—who would automatically become prime minister—will be set by the 1922 Committee, a powerful group of Conservative lawmakers in the parliamentary backbench. They will also decide the timetable, with the selection process expected to conclude before the party conference in October. The opposition Labour Party, for its part, is insisting that a change at the top is not sufficient and that a new general election must be called. If Johnson does not resign as prime minister now, they will table a vote of no confidence in him in parliament, which could trigger an immediate election. Inside the European Union, there is no love lost for Johnson, and few people are sad to see him go. But there also isn’t a great deal of optimism that his successor will be any less antagonistic toward Britain’s European neighbors. In fact, there is concern that the new prime minister will continue the U.K.’s long-running habit of picking fights with the EU, perhaps by doubling down on tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol, as a way to shore up support with the Brexit hardliners within the Tory party. There is some hope in Brussels that the Tories could settle on a relatively moderate figure like Jeremy Hunt, who generally opposed Brexit, as party leader in order to mark a clear break from Johnson. But the odds of a Hunt victory are slim at best: A recent poll by the Conservative Home website has him polling in sixth place. Among the hard-line figures who served as ministers under Johnson and are now in the contest to replace him as party leader is Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who has been eager to brandish her anti-European credentials since assuming the job last year. Attorney General Suella Braverman, who advised Johnson to break international law by tearing up the U.K.’s divorce deal with the EU, has also put her name forward. Brussels is unified in its opposition to London’s threat to violate the terms of the treaty, with parliamentarians, European Commission officials and national governments of EU member states reiterating the union’s objection to such a move yesterday. One commonly expressed hope in Brussels is for a general election to be held, with Labour leader Keir Starmer emerging as prime minister. But even if Starmer were to take the top job, they might be in for a disappointment, as his position on Brexit appears to differ from Johnson’s more in terms of style than substance. Starmer has vowed to respect Brexit and keep the U.K. out of the EU, while expressing a willingness to “fix” the Northern Ireland Protocol, suggesting that the bill tabled by Johnson’s government to weaken the protocol is likely here to stay regardless of who resides in 10 Downing Street.

In Other News

The EU approves gas and nuclear as “green fuels.”  The European Parliament approved a “taxonomy” list that would define nuclear energy and natural gas as fuel sources in line with the EU’s climate goals, making them eligible for sustainable investment funds as “transition fuels.” Both were included as part of a compromise between anti-nuclear Germany and anti-gas France, each of which would likely have blocked the whole list unless their preference were included. The European Commission controversially put the taxonomy list forward as a delegated act, meaning that the parliament could only approve or reject the whole list, but could not amend it by removing anything, whether nuclear or gas. The list is nonetheless advisory, and many analysts warn that the controversy has damaged its credibility. There is even the possibility that the list ends up being ignored by private and public investors who no longer view it as an authoritative guide for green investing. The Czech Republic takes over the EU Council. The Czech Republic took over the rotating six-month presidency of the EU Council last week, with an official ceremony in Prague attended by European Commission officials. In setting the priorities for their presidency, the Czechs listed Ukraine’s economic recovery, energy security, European defense, the union’s economic stability and democratic resilience. But above all, Prague says that its main priority will be flexibility in these extraordinary times, a trait that Czechs consider to be in their national character. The Czech Republic opened its presidency with a video depicting Russia’s brutal crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, urging the EU to fight back against Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine today. Czech Minister for European Affairs Mikulas Bek, a former musicologist, will be spearheading the presidency, along with foreign policy adviser Tomas Pojar, both under the direction of Prime Minister Petr Fiala. The presidency’s set-piece event will be an informal summit in Prague on Oct. 6, to which non-EU countries like Ukraine and the U.K. may be invited to get the ball rolling on French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea for a European Political Community. The ECB moves to tackle inflation. The economic news in Europe is going from bad to worse, as the European Central Bank met yesterday in Frankfurt in the shadow of record inflation and the euro hitting a 20-year low against the dollar, at near-parity. The ECB is reportedly preparing to raise interest rates for the first time since 2011, following the lead of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has already been doing so for several months.

Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.

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