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21 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:18pm

Boris Johnson declares war on the EU — and increases the chance of an election

By Patrick Maguire

Those still wondering whether Boris Johnson’s ascent to the office of prime minister would result in a change of style cannot have been left in any doubt by his expansive and at times rambling inaugural speech. Theresa May’s successor used his opening appearance on the steps of Downing Street to unveil a scattergun prospectus for his first 100 days in office, covering everything from school funding to animal welfare, via free ports, as well as launching an attack on “pessimists at home and abroad”

Yet as far as delivering Brexit — the defining mission of his premiership — is concerned there were only three lines that really mattered. The first was his commitment that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union on 31 October “no ifs, no buts”. The phrasing was not quite as strong as “do or die”, his now infamous campaign pledge, but it was similarly categorical and, tellingly, was repeated twice for emphasis for the benefit of the doubters in Westminster and voters in the country.

The same is true of a second campaign pledge he made sure to reaffirm: his rejection of the Irish backstop, which he attacked as “anti-democratic” and dismissed as unnecessary (a sop to both the European Research Group and DUP). Instead, Johnson insisted that he would be able to strike an EU trade deal that did not result in checks on the border, though he did not show his working. As far as Dublin is concerned, such a deal cannot exist if it does not include a backstop. Having used his last hustings appearance as a leadership candidate, and his first speech as Prime Minister, to make clear his opposition to such a plan, Johnson has closed off one of the few viable, if tenuous, routes to compromise with the EU that remained available. 

In which case, how does Johnson intend to make good on his promise to negotiate a new accord with Brussels? It is fair to say his gambit is the precise opposite of that Jeremy Hunt would have taken. Where Hunt stressed his experience of diplomacy in the chancelleries of Europe would help deliver a compromise, Johnson is instead gearing up to turn the next 99 days into a blame game. He framed no-deal not as his preferred outcome, or, indeed, as a positive, but instead argued that it would only happen if “Brussels refuses any further negotiation”.

His problem, of course, is that the terms he has set on the backstop make that outcome more likely than not. Add to that his desire to pass a Budget in the autumn — no mean ask for a government with a working parliamentary majority of two seats — and it is clear that, by compulsion or choice, the first act of Johnson’s premiership will close with the snap election he has promised MPs he will not call.

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