British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has and can only have one priority for the next three months: to resolve the Brexit crisis that he has played such a central role in creating. If he fails, his political career will be destroyed, and the Conservative Party he leads may lose power and not recover its current dominance for a long time, if ever.
Given that the chance of his striking a deal with the EU27 by his October 31 deadline is slim to impossible, he will put equal effort during this period into preparing for a general election, either to drive a ‘No Deal’ Brexit through Parliament or to consolidate his position after having done so.
Either way, having a plan for Brexit is not enough. Johnson must also show he has a plan to galvanize and re-unite the country economically.
The politically astute way to do this is to focus on driving domestic regeneration projects in the left-behind areas of the UK, the North East and Midlands, for example, where many former Labour voters turned to the UK Independence Party and then to the Brexit Party in protest at their marginalisation.
These voters might now be won over to a hard-charging, Boris-style Conservative Party. Johnson’s speech in Manchester on Friday, July 26, played straight to this strategy, with its multiple promises of infrastructure investment and job creation.
Relations with the EU and its 27 member states in this context are going to be fractious. Boris Johnson is the sort of opportunist populist that most worries EU leaders, making it hard for them to compromise. He is also threatening to rip the UK away from the EU precisely when the latter has entered a period of economic as well as political vulnerability, in the wake of the Donald Trump administration’s dampening effect on world trade and support for populist European parties.
Theresa May’s government was able to deepen its foreign policy cooperation with the EU even as it tried to leave the EU. The UK was in lock-step with Germany and France on finding ways to rescue the nuclear accord with Iran, going as far as to establish a financial vehicle to try to circumvent U.S. sanctions. It has played a central role among EU members in driving progress towards the Paris Agreement’s carbon reductions commitments, in opposing the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, and backing the WTO and imposing counter-tariffs on the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs.
Does this mean that the Johnson administration, however limited its attention span currently for foreign policy, will now pivot the UK’s foreign policies away from the EU and towards those of the Trump administration, whose leader has spoken in such glowing terms about his new British counterpart and who backs (and may gain from) his aggressive Brexit strategy? Not necessarily.
Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party face a political dilemma. For the votes they might pick up in former Labour heartlands with their hard Brexit line and promises of regional regeneration, they will lose some among their centrist base, especially in the South East, as well as in Scotland. Pivoting towards the United States, especially on striking a quick bilateral trade deal, offers little material benefit for Britain’s left-behind communities and could galvanize opposition against him from the centre and left.
There is also the practical fact that, even if Britain were to leave the EU without an agreement, this would not free the Johnson government to seal trade deals with the U.S. and others. A No-Deal Brexit is simply the prelude to months, probably years of the UK and EU trying to strike a durable trade agreement, but without the benefit of an existing framework or political goodwill. It will be very difficult for the UK to strike any meaningful deals with third parties until they understand what the UK’s terms of trade are going to be with the EU, its principal trading partner.
But the Johnson government could take some diplomatic steps towards the U.S. in the interim. There would be little to lose now from taking a tougher line on Iran, given Europe’s powerlessness in the face of U.S. extra-territorial sanctions on European companies and Iran’s own more aggressive posture, including impounding a British-flagged tanker. The UK could be a more loyal ally to the U.S. in the UN, including over America’s Israel policy. It could commit to further military investments in support of NATO. It could be supportive of whatever deal the U.S. seals on Afghanistan, despite Britain’s likely misgivings of its likely impacts on human rights there.
The biggest challenge, however, will be what to do about China. When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron launched a new “golden ear” in China-UK relations with President Xi, and the UK was the first G7 Country to sign up China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Theresa May’s Government initially took a more cautious approach, but she quickly learned, as Boris Johnson will that Britain would benefit greatly from increasing its relatively low level of exports to China, attracting more Chinese investment into UK energy and transport infrastructure, and having British financial service companies participate in China’s Belt & Road Initiative.
As much as their instincts may be Atlanticist, making a success of Brexit is the dominant domestic and foreign policy objective for Boris Johnson and his government. Each decision between the U.S. and China will be seen through this prism: Which choice increases the opportunities for success, which increases the risk of failure?
Huawei is a case in point. With the Trump administration still calibrating the precise level of its economic sanctions against Huawei, the Johnson government may decide it can also kick the question over the extent of the company’s continued involvement in the UK’s 5G roll-out further down the road.
Unless forced to, Boris Johnson and his leading advisers will do their best over the next few months to avoid making zero-sum choices, whether between the U.S. and China or between the U.S. and EU. Until Brexit is resolved, there is little scope for a creative British foreign policy.