Conservative leadership contender Boris Johnson. (AFP)
Conservative leadership contender Boris Johnson. (AFP)

Opinion | Preparing for the new British PM, head in hands

A transition period for final withdrawal comes to an end on 31 Dec. 2020. By then, the UK govt and its new leader must convince restive businesses to stay the course and persuade the world that Britain is open to business by offering new trade deals

On 24 July, after a prolonged spell of uncertainty and chaos, a new British prime minister will lead his country into what increasingly looks like a further prolonged spell of uncertainty and chaos. Nothing looks good at the moment. Both candidates, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor Boris Johnson, are vying for the top job amid an unprecedented ruction in the UK’s relations with the US, marked by name calling, and stiff headwinds from a trade war between the US and China.

Domestically, there is nervousness over the plans these two men have for guiding the UK’s exit from the European Union. What we know so far is that Johnson, the frontrunner, has declared a “do or die, come what may" commitment to meeting the EU’s 31 October deadline for Brexit, even at the cost of leaving without a trade deal. Hunt appears to be more flexible about a deadline (although we don’t know by exactly how much) but he too is prepared for a no-deal exit.

The deadline’s just the first of many uncertainties: another is exactly how a no deal exit will be enforced. Both candidates say they will renegotiate the terms of Brexit, but the EU says it won’t reopen the deal that was agreed with outgoing prime minister Theresa May. Hence, the no-deal ‘solution’. But a no deal is a big deal in the UK: According to former prime minister John Major, a pro-European Conservative, 70-80% of members of parliament believe Brexit is a “disaster".

British MPs have been downright bloody-minded over Brexit: they voted against Theresa May’s terms of negotiations three times, humiliating and forcing her to step down. One way to get around another such humiliating outcome for a no deal would be for the new prime minister to prorogue Parliament—that is, temporarily suspend it—while he signs the no-deal deal.

Johnson, a prominent campaigner for Brexit, has not specifically said he will prorogue Parliament if it comes to that, but said in a televised debate on Tuesday he “will not take anything off the table". Hunt has ruled out prorogation. After all, suspension of Parliament, arguably, puts the knife into the first principle of democracy—parliamentary sovereignty or the supremacy of the legislature.

Head in hands? Step up (in the nick of time too), opposition Labour party and its Left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Having alternately frustrated and incensed his supporters by refusing to disclose exactly where he stood on the Brexit debate—remember, anti-European sentiments course through working class veins too—Corbyn has just come out with a “settled" policy. He backs a “public vote" on the terms of the new deal, if there is one, or no deal.

“Whoever becomes the new prime minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or no deal, back to the people in a public vote," Corbyn said in a statement to party members on Tuesday. “In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for remain against either no deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs."

What is this ‘public vote’, when is it likely and what would Labour do with Brexit? To answer those questions serially, a public vote could be a general election or perhaps a second referendum on the terms of the deal. When? That’s tricky: the new Conservative leader will be known on 23 July, when postal ballots from around 160,000 Conservative party members are to be counted. As per British tradition, the party leader becomes the prime minister and so the winner will be anointed the next day, 24 July, to take control of a minority government propped up by the Democratic Union Party, a regional outfit from Northern Ireland province.

By close of day on 25 July, the British parliament goes on its summer break. If Corbyn has to table a no-confidence motion against the government he must do so on 25 July, following which parliament will be adjourned, to reconvene on 3 September as the government undertakes negotiations on the terms of the deal.

Labour’s role here will be crucial—the party has come under increasing pressure from anti-Brexiters, most notably from the Liberal Democratic party, which has emerged as the party of remainers. Corbyn, having reportedly built a degree of consensus in a party that has been divided over Brexit, will have to show forceful leadership at this point. All we know so far is that he doesn’t like the terms being proposed by either Johnson or Hunt.

“We’ve been through this whole long parliamentary process over the past three years and we’ve made it very clear we will do everything we can to take no deal off the table or stop a damaging deal of the sort Hunt and Johnson are proposing," he told BBC on Tuesday. It may make sense for the radical Labour leader to keep his cards close to his chest until, quite possibly, there is greater unanimity in the party over his plans for Brexit, but he doesn’t have long. After 3 September, the UK is expected to move into negotiation mode at break-neck speed and Labour will be expected to give its own matching solutions and proposals.

Former prime minister John Major, an influential moderate voice in the Conservative party, says Parliament must have a vote on the final Brexit deal, in which MPs must accept or reject the deal or send the government back to Brussels to seek improvements in the deal, failing which there must be a second referendum on the proposals.

The UK is running out of time. A transition period for final withdrawal comes to an end on 31 December 2020. By then, the UK government and its new leader must also convince restive businesses to stay the course and persuade the world that Britain is open to business by offering new trade deals. At the moment, though, it doesn’t look great for the world’s fifth largest economic power (after the US, China, Japan and Germany). Look at this way: if the UK were a start-up, would you invest today?

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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