Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 February 2020

Boris Johnson has three big challenges ahead

Brexit is perhaps the least of the British Prime Minister's worries

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative leader Boris Johnson. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA 
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative leader Boris Johnson. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA 

There is an old superstition that bad things come in threes. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be about to find out if that is true. The first of Mr Johnson’s woes is obvious. He claims that at the end of this month Brexit will in some magical way be “done.” It won’t. Formally leaving the European Union marks the beginning of Brexit. And what kind of deal can Britain expect from the organisation we have rejected? Mr Johnson has a cunning plan.

That is, to pursue negotiations with the US on a trade deal at the same time as discussions with the European Union. Fine in theory, but Britain lacks skilled trade negotiators and trade talks are technically complex and boring – not Mr Johnson’s forte.

Yet of the three big foreseeable difficulties ahead, Brexit is perhaps the least of his worries. He has shown what supporters call “flexibility” (and opponents call weakness) in striking a deal with the EU last year – but only by making big concessions. He will get a rapid deal with the EU if he is prepared to concede much of what they demand. His majority in Parliament gives him plenty of leverage.

While Mr Johnson calls himself a “One Nation” Conservative, he seems to me to act more as a “One Notion” Conservative

Much more delicate are relations with the Trump administration. From April, Britain plans a new 2 per cent sales tax on US tech giants like Facebook and Google. European countries believe that such companies avoid paying their “fair share” of tax – whatever “fair” means – by inventive accounting measures.

They make sales in one country yet – within the rules – paying tax on profits in places with a low-tax environment. Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary, threatened Britain with tariffs on British car exports if the tech sales tax goes ahead, and the Trump administration appears to have at least delayed a similar sales tax from being introduced by French President Emmanuel Macron.

In an American presidential election year, Mr Trump will want to continue to look tough on the world stage. The prospect of some kind of trade war, while Britain is trying to negotiate a US trade treaty, compounds Mr Johnson’s problems.

Plus, the Trump administration is irritated with Britain over Iran and also the UK’s arrangements with the Chinese company Huawei to build so-called “non-core” parts of the UK’s 5G telecommunications network. Mr Trump may be impossible to predict but the third of Mr Johnson’s big problems for 2020 is the one which could truly ruin his time in power.

Formally, as prime minister, he is leader of the “Conservative and Unionist party.” Unionism means that Conservatives are traditionally motivated by a profound desire to maintain the unity of the four nations of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is going to be tricky.

The Scottish parliament, the Northern Ireland assembly and the Welsh assembly have in the past few days all come out against Mr Johnson’s Brexit bill, while the Westminster parliament has voted in favour. At one level these differences mean very little. On Brexit it is Westminster which decides.

But that is not how it is seen by many people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who feel that increasingly Mr Johnson claims to be a “One Nation” Conservative, pulling all the people of the UK together, when in fact he is a “One Nation” leader of only one nation – England – and pulling the UK apart.

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon says Mr Johnson has no mandate to take Scotland out of the EU.

It is expected that she will soon outline her plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence. (The first was in 2014 and independence was defeated by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.)

Again, whatever Ms Sturgeon says, the Westminster parliament can stop another referendum from happening.

But that may make things even worse by increasing support for Scottish independence and the alienation of Scots from Mr Johnson’s government. This is the heart of what may be the third and most intractable of Mr Johnson’s problems.

Does he use the carrot or the stick to keep the UK together? The “stick” would be to refuse to allow Scotland a referendum and perhaps to threaten to cut financial subsidies that London sends to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The carrot would be to increase those subsidies and give those three devolved assemblies even more powers. But neither method may completely solve the problem. That is because increasingly English voters who were behind Brexit also wonder why Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales get a bigger share of public money than English regions such as Yorkshire or Lancashire or Tyneside.

Mr Johnson’s “flexibility” may help. While he calls himself a “One Nation” Conservative, he seems to me to act more as a “One Notion” Conservative. His “One Notion” is that he wants to ensure his own political survival. That means, whatever he has promised in the past, he will do – whatever it takes to stay in Downing Street.

Buckle up for the Johnson rollercoaster ride and prepare for the thrills, and maybe becoming a little queasy.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: January 26, 2020 06:39 PM

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