By Eric Vandenbroeck
Today is the first of two during which appointments to the new cabinet are being made.
Surely Theresa May knows that the appointment of Boris Johnson today will be critically assessed in some countries.
In his recent columns and conversations, he has made it clear that Britain’s traditional alliances, with the United States, with Europe, mean little to him. Instead, he has flirted with Putinism, praised Bashar al-Assad and gone on trade junkets to China. Johnson’s admiration for rich foreign dictators echoes the views of many leading Tories, even George Osborne, the just-retired chancellor of the exchequer.
Also commonwealth leaders will not forget his categorically outrageous 2002 column in which he claimed it “is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”.
Hillary Clinton, who may well win the White House in November, will not have liked his 2007 comparison of her with a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” (although he did endorse her). This is but the tip of an inverted pyramid of punditry with explosive potential.
Speaking at the G7 summit in Japan on 26 May, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said: "I'm reading in (the) papers that Boris Johnson spent part of his life in Brussels. It's time for him to come back to Brussels, in order to check in Brussels if everything he's telling British people is in line with reality. I don't think so, so he would be welcome in Brussels at any time."
On one level, it is easy to sympathize with May’s decision. Johnson is weak and manageable. Packing him off to parts foreign will keep him out of the way and limit his ability to plot a new path to 10 Downing Street. He will put a Brexiteer face on a government led by a Remainer. Yet all this betrays an odd complacency about the drama into which Britain has now thrust itself. Brexit, believe it or not, is about more than opinion polls and Tory traumas. It is about Britain’s future: a future that will turn not on the doubtful willingness of foreign governments to bend over backwards to tolerate British demands, but on the ability of the government in London to persuade them of its case and reconcile the desires of the British electorate with those of EU27 electorates. Brexiteers do not like to admit it, but whether or not Britain gets a deal that will satisfy its population and rein in the populist surge in the country is largely a function of that ability.
However much May splices up the government, it is the Foreign Office that has the skills and experience to make that a reality. Yet by appointing Johnson, the new prime minister has essentially downgraded the department to a tool of domestic political management. It is like putting a baboon at the wheel of the Rolls Royce. Sure, the steering wheel, clutch and accelerator will keep the baboon happy and busy. But the price in collateral damage could be high.
Even more important than Johnson, however, might be David Davis, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister).
In an article written by Davis and posted last Monday on the Conservative Home, he emphasized:
“This is one of the reasons for taking a little time before triggering Article 50. The negotiating strategy has to be properly designed, and there is some serious consultation to be done first.”
“In this process, we should work out what we do in the improbable event of the EU taking a dog in a manger attitude to Single market tariff free access, and insist on WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules and levies, including 10 per cent levies on car exports. Let us be clear: I do not believe for a moment that that will happen, but let us humour the pre-referendum Treasury fantasy.”
This strategy for Brexit, is wildly optimistic and suggests that he is totally unprepared for the rigors of the negotiation ahead.
This along with the appointment of Boris Johnson suggests that the prime minister sees Brexit fundamentally as a presentational task. But also that this government is not simply going to be a female version of David Cameron's administration. The choices made in this cabinet reshuffle thus can also be seen as a political aftershock, the unsettling tremors that somehow keep reverberating in the wake of the political earthquake that was Brexit.
From the moment the results of the referendum were announced on June 24, May made it clear that the will of the public will prevail and that “Brexit means Brexit.” There are those who believe that she will not deliver on this promise. Disgruntled Conservative Leave voters, not to mention many UKIP members, fear that the revolution (which has already eaten so many of its own) may now be stolen from them, with UKIP already issuing threats to May if she doesn’t follow their “red lines.” But these are comparatively marginal voices. For the time being, the conventional wisdom is that May will follow through on her promise, which will see her negotiating one of the trickiest obstacle courses in modern politics.
For one, those who voted Leave often find it hard to pin down any one cause for their success. Opinion polls suggest that sovereignty and immigration concerns were foremost in voters’ minds. But so were concerns about the economy, including workers’ pay. In other words, the reasons for voting Leave ranged from the grand to the specific. Navigating, and satisfying, that range of feelings will not be straightforward.
And there is genuine uncertainty over what the public may want. Did voters want to return to a common trading agreement (taking the United Kingdom back to the original intention of its membership in 1973) or do they want to scrap the whole thing? Do they expect to exit via Article 50 or through the retraction of the entire agreement that took the United Kingdom in 40 years ago (the former would lead to at least two years of detailed negotiation whereas the latter would be a blunt but wholesale rejection of all negotiation processes)? Does an order from the public to exit the EU include an order to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, or a desire to retain it? None of this is clear.
A further problem is that many of the causes for Brexit are widely thought to be in contradiction with each other. For instance, for trade reasons, the United Kingdom may well choose to remain within the common market. In that case, though, it would almost certainly have to accept the conditions that come along with that, not least the condition of free movement of peoples, which was one of the causes of Brexit in the first place.
These are not unsolvable problems, but their answers are in part instinctive, which raises the question of how a prime minister can be in tune with a public attitude she did not herself share. May’s unwillingness to guarantee that all EU nationals working in the United Kingdom on June 23 could remain is just one early, jarring, example. Questioned as to why she would not promise something that all prominent Leave campaigners had called for, May and her closest colleagues have argued that the presence of EU workers in the United Kingdom (and indeed British workers in the EU) would be a “bargaining chip” in forthcoming negotiations with the EU. That explanation left many Leave voters horrified and it revealed a deep misunderstanding of why they voted out in the first place.
Finally there is the question of priorities. If the United Kingdom spends the next four years navigating its exit from the EU, it risks becoming an inward-looking country at precisely the moment it needs to take wing and head out into the world, searching for new trading opportunities and reviving old friendships. It can perhaps do both, but so far May has placed priority on extrication from the EU over reentrance into the wider world. Whether she continues to do so will decide the success of this new chapter of British history.