Sunday 25 August 2019

Boris Johnson elected as Conservative leader: What does it mean for Ireland, Brexit and the backstop issue?

Boris Johnson has been elected by Conservative party members as the new party leader, and will become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
Boris Johnson has been elected by Conservative party members as the new party leader, and will become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

The election of Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader has at last confirmed what everyone, including the Irish government, had been expecting would happen at the end of the marathon 46-day Tory leadership campaign.

Publicly at least, Dublin has been in a holding pattern for the last six weeks waiting for events to play out, but always expecting that Mr Johnson would become Prime Minister as he will tomorrow when he visits the Queen and later takes up residence in Number 10 Downing Street.

In somewhat of a diplomatic offensive in recent days, the Irish government, led by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, has focused on underlining that there can be no change to the existing withdrawal agreement negotiated between Britain and the EU that Mr Johnson has said he wants to reopen.

Expect this to be hammered home again and again in the coming days.

It has also been noted by some in government that Mr Johnson actually voted for this withdrawal deal when it came before the UK parliament earlier this year. As the Irish Independent reported this morning, a number of sources in Dublin believe Mr Johnson is not as committed to a disorderly Brexit as portrayed.

Why? Well because Mr Johnson is not an ideologue when it comes to Brexit. His campaigning for Britain to leave three years ago was arguably motivated more by personal political ambition to one day become Prime Minister than any dogged desire to get out of the EU. Don’t forget, he wrote two op-eds - one arguing for Leave, the other for Remain - in the days before he came out in favour of Britain leaving.

Now, ironically, he finds himself on the brink of occupying the office he was always wanted trying to deliver the EU exit he might have, in different circumstances, actually been against.

During his leadership campaign Mr Johnson made clear his desire to take Britain out of the EU on October 31st no matter what. Mr Johnson wants the backstop removed form any future Brexit deal, describing it as a “monstrosity”. But this is not a runner for either Dublin or Brussels.

The backstop is the insurance policy that will maintain a seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event that Britain cannot strike a comprehensive free trade deal with the European Union. It has become the bête noire of the hardline Brexiteers who fear that it will keep Britain locked into EU rules in perpetuity. To win their support, Mr Johnson has promised to ditch it and get a new deal from Brussels.

If he sticks to this rhetoric then Britain looks on course to crash out of the EU in the autumn with devastating consequences for Ireland and chaos on the border. But it’s worth remembering one of the core tenets of politics: you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.

In his victory speech to party members this afternoon the Prime Minister-elect said the Conservative Party must show its “historic ability to balance competing instincts – marrying the desire to maintain a close relationship with the EU, with the desire for democratic self-government in this country”.

Such conciliatory words could offer hope of a deal but there are many twists and turns to come in the weeks ahead. As Fine Gael senator Neal Richmond, the government’s effective Brexit spokesman, tweeted within minutes of Mr Johnson’s election: “Buckle up folks”.

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