November of last year’s weather forecast was one characterised by a sundry of bleak and battering blizzards. Fast forward to July 2019, both the atmospheric and political conditions could not have altered so drastically, with no indication of more temperate conditions to come.
Theresa May certainly felt the bleak midwinter chill when many of her cabinet colleagues gave her the cold shoulder, when resolving to express their exasperation with her handling of the UK-EU Brexit negotiations. Mrs. May’s colossally unpopular Withdrawal Agreement, agreed to between EU and UK leaders, faced a barrage of condemnation from all political sects in the UK. Her undeniably tearful exit revealed how her strenuous efforts to solve Brexit had been defeated. Yet her emotion on leaving No. 10 demonstrated how she was committedly wedded to public service, advising that the country needed to undergo “a national renewal.”
The thrice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement, so championed by Theresa May, has been unceremoniously torn and discarded in the No. 10 shredder. Mrs. May set new precedents in British governmental history with the deal being rejected firstly by 230 votes, with her own MPs in jubilant defiance of the Conservative Party whip. The forsaken document, which has supposedly cast national shame upon the UK’s international credentials, was not even worthy of a place on the archived shelves of Downing Street. In the words of the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, one of Mrs. May’s most bitter detractors, who incidentally voted in favour of the Agreement on its third circuit of the Commons in March, the deal “dead.”
Last week Boris Johnson grasped the reins of power as Prime Minister – his hunched, Churchillian stance and persona intact. This may be a dominant feature of his character along with his peerless buffoonery, however, his calculated political strategy exposes a much more solid personality. His early years are in the World he left behind – “not so long ago.”
He is now much more than the bizarre little Englander on the end of a parachute flying the red, white and blue, as London Mayor or the unfortunate subject of sardonic memes.
As dusk descended upon Downing Street on Wednesday evening, within hours of meeting with the Queen and officially committing himself to lead the country, the loyal lynchpins of Theresa May’s administration had been given the boot by Boris. Conservative Party leadership rival Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley all learning of their fate as Mr. Johnson hustled through the threshold of the most powerful office in the country. Other former senior cabinet figures having the foresight to jump prior to being pushed with Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, handing in his resignation the Sunday prior to Boris Johnson’s being crowned leader of the Conservative Party.
No. 10, with its black-glossed frontage forever a permanent constitutional fixture, along with the resident feline, perched on the entrance mat, was the only sign of normality – even he had been excluded from the quarters of his new, fair-haired and fresh-faced landlord.
The court of ‘King’ Boris, now installed with those prominent ‘Vote Leave’ Conservative campaigners, having been lying in wait for this moment for the past three years. Ministers, who exited the May administration on less than amicable terms, were recruited once again for the most prominent Cabinet positions with ardent Brexiteer Dominic Raab being assigned Foreign Secretary and Priti Patel becoming Home Secretary – perhaps in one last final snub to Theresa May.
The Prime Minister’s first week in office has been typically eventful, characterised by a strong sense of post-Brexit optimism. Whether purposefully engineered or not to distort the mammoth mission which lies ahead of him, in renegotiating a fresh Withdrawal Agreement with the stubborn- headed honchos in the EU, it is difficult to gauge. Mr. Johnson is ardently adamant that the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 31st October – deal or no deal. From his first appearance as Prime Minister in the House of Commons last Thursday, which had connotations of continuity with Theresa May’s final appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, facing-off Jeremy Corbyn, his Northern Powerhouse Speech in Manchester, pledging £2 billion investment for Britain’s most deprived towns and cities to commencing his brisk, whistle-stop tour of the country – commencing on Monday morning in Scotland, then Wales and concluding in Northern Ireland on Wednesday afternoon – he has remained true to every fibre of his well-established credentials.
Commentators have posited the notion that Mr. Johnson is somewhat of an unwanted anomaly amongst traditional Conservative members and voters. However, he is not the first Conservative Prime Minister that contemporaries of the day lampooned as a result of their deemed eccentricity.
Benjamin Disraeli, who twice served as Prime Minister, was systematically derided for his gaudy sense of dress (much like Mr. Johnson’s tendencies) defying the established political order in 19th Century Britain and eventually being crowned with the nickname ‘Dizzy.’ His maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1837 was an address which he could hardly commence, never mind conclude, due to the cacophonous jeering from both the Tory and Whig benches of the House. Like Disraeli, Boris Johnson, for all of the criticism of his political persona and style, has proven himself not to be prepared to lose a single, sultry second of his first week as Prime Minister – now finally assuming the figure at the helm of Disraeli’s ‘greasy pole.’
Attacking the tirade of pessimistic predictions posited by Jeremy Corbyn in his debut, Mr. Johnson accused the always Euro-sceptic Mr. Corbyn of retreating into the Remainer camp, having no faith in the future of the United Kingdom after its departure from the European Union, declaring that it was the Conservative government which was “on the side of democracy” and the Conservative Party “the party of the people.” Johnson has developed a conviction, within a short week of his premiership, that the UK is not to become a rudderless vessel, at the mercy of hostile currents, without definite direction or destination.
His re-espousal of one-nation Conservatism as revealed in his recent Manchester speech, affirmed by Disraeli in his 1872 speech also delivered in Manchester, suggested a paternalistic strengthening of the United Kingdom as one single, prosperous and distinct entity.
Sharp parallels with Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson have been hastily dismissed by commentators from across the spectrum, who have sneered at Johnson’s efforts to emulate the 20th Century political giant who guided Britain through the ghastly horrors of the Second World War. Despite this, Boris Johnson, who revers Churchill as one of his political icons, spent a duration of two years as Foreign Secretary, until his irritation with Theresa May’s Brexit strategy gripped hold of him. While holder of that position his Euro-sceptic utterances were once again made clear, providing a stark reminder to many of his time as European commentator for the Telegraph in another life.
His characteristic blunders did cause undue embarrassment to the UK, memorably declaring that the city of Shirte in Libya could be another Dubai in the Middle East if only “the dead bodies” from its civil war were removed. He was, however, the face of the UK abroad as Foreign Secretary and he garnered a reputation for being astute in his engagements with foreign leaders and dignitaries, being a particularly prominent proponent of the Government’s policy of expulsion of Russian diplomats following the Salisbury nerve-agent attack in Spring last year. Churchill as Colonial Secretary, with perhaps fewer diplomatic gaffes, in the early 1920s, also had an intimate understanding of foreign affairs, bolstered by his own experiences within the colonies and dominions of the British Empire. Churchill’s immortal features would have him today placed in a fervent Eurosceptic camp, however, unlike Boris Johnson, Churchill was in fact sympathetic to the notion of the UK tightening both economic and diplomatic ties to the rest of the continent; supporting the UK’s first application to join the European Economic Community in 1961 – a fact which Boris Johnson may or may not be aware.
Winston Churchill is very much a political icon of his time and his patriotic stance during the Second World War cannot be compared with the current Brexit crisis – a conflict which is by no means militaristic in nature. Three years into the Second World War and the Allied side were beginning to lever the balance in their favour against the Axis belligerents. Now with the Brexit calamity, in its third year, there is no clear indication of which side have a monopoly of negotiating muscle.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s optimistic outlook was perhaps the tonic for which the British electorate craved. Last Sunday a poll conducted by Opinium on behalf of the Observer reported that Boris Johnson’s popularity increased by a 10% margin, amidst decreasing support for the Brexit Party which stormed the political establishment in May, triumphing at the European Elections. His announcements about robustly attacking crime and a commitment to recruiting 20,000 extra police officers were warmly welcomed by many across the UK. Reports of a ‘Boris bounce’ were not bloated with 38% of poll respondents further stating that Boris Johnson had greater worthy leadership credentials than Jeremy Corbyn’s 17% – a revelation which is perhaps unsurprising considering the internal wrangling within the Labour Party over concerns about Mr. Corbyn’s shortcomings as party leader.
Eminent political writer and historian Lord Hennessy accurately predicted Boris Johnson’s approach to the wearied Brexit process would be akin to an alchemist turning “the base metal of Brexit into something shiny and remarkable.” If this is the course on which Mr. Johnson is going to embark it is going to be neither short, simple nor sweet. His jaunt across the UK regions has allowed the cracks and crevices, that lie therein, to be exposed once again. While in Scotland on Monday the tensions that existed between Theresa May’s government and Scottish First Minister Nichola Sturgeon’s were a continuing theme with the energy-sapped jargon of a no-deal Brexit being exploited by the SNP to cunningly lever for a second independence referendum. There was also fire in the Scottish Conservative camp with leader Ruth Davidson, stubbornly refusing to contemplate the possibility of the UK departing from the EU without a deal on 31st October.
Moving to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister would be forgiven for thinking that the region was facing a near Armageddon scenario, greeted on arrival at the foot of Sir Edward Carson’s statue, at Stormont Parliament Buildings, with a curious myriad of flags, banners and placards accompanied by hollering for everything from the saviour of the shipyard to the implementation of an Irish Language Act for Irish speakers. His convoy, however, did not stop for a meet or greet session – hurdling past the peeved picketers – to meet newly installed Secretary of State Julian Smith.
The dumping of the Irish ‘Backstop’ is a key cog in the wheel of Mr. Johnson’s Brexit agenda – the codified guarantee by the British Government and the EU that no border infrastructure would be erected on the island of Ireland if no-deal is reached between the two sides. The ‘Backstop’ is an inseparable facet of the Withdrawal Agreement and a forbidden fruit as far as Boris Johnson is concerned – which has resultantly brought about a backlog of the entire Brexit process. It is a Johnson stance which has been severely criticised by the pro-Remain political parties in Northern Ireland, with Alliance Leader, Naomi Long claiming that Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy was having “a destabilising effect.” The Prime Minister has further been rebuked because of his decision to accept a private dinner invitation from the DUP on Tuesday evening, the party which enables the Conservatives to maintain their majority in the Commons. His ability to deal with Northern Ireland affairs impartially has been questioned; with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief Negotiator in Northern Ireland, deeming that Mr. Johnson had lost any semblance of impartiality he may previously have had.
Whether this is the case or the mere fact that the Prime Minister is simply unaccustomed to the sensitivities in Northern Ireland’s political sphere is another matter. What is clear is that the Prime Minister has many jobs of work to do in order to keep the problems in Northern Ireland under control, not least as leaked Government reports suggest that a deal-less Brexit could result in civil disorder in Northern Ireland coupled with the fact that devolution has not be restored after two-and-a-half years. The Prime Minister may inquire, as Winston Churchill did while defending the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, “why Ireland should bulk so largely” in the affairs of Britain. A Churchillian feature in which Johnson may be lacking is his hero’s intimate expertise of Irish affairs.
Boris Johnson’s forceful adamance that the EU will negotiate a new and more desirable Withdrawal Agreement weighed against the stubbornness of EU officials that a deal has already been done – he is not going to have a pressure- free ride. This and stark warnings from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney that a no-deal Brexit could lead to an “instantaneous shock” for both the economy and businesses inevitably adds to the currently ambiguous situation with which the country is faced. Mr. Johnson may be well advised to recall that it was controversy surrounding the future of the European project which ominously sounded the death knell for former Conservative Prime Ministers’ careers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and, who could forget, his former fellow Etonian David Cameron. As Boris bundles into Office of the Prime Minister and now spending one full week in that position; time will be the ultimate teller of what may befall this unashamedly unusual leader.
The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.
View more posts