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What is Boris Johnson up to?

Since his appointment as Prime Minister last week Boris Johnson has, for some, brought a breath of fresh air and enthusiasm to his new role – with his ‘can-do’ attitude showcasing a clear departure from the business-like and functional manner of his predecessor. But for others, Johnson is a cynical showman and a hard Brexit ideologue who, when it comes down to it, is all talk and no action.

What can we make of Johnson after his first few days in the role? Is he all bluff and bluster or is he determined to take the UK out of the EU at all costs and against parliamentary opposition to a no-deal exit? Will he call an election to strengthen his hand, and risk becoming the shortest serving Prime Minister in centuries?

Some of this is difficult to judge, but there are already some signs of what direction Johnson may be looking to steer his Government in its first few months in office. Here we look at the likelihood of both an early general election, and a no-deal Brexit on 31st October and what the implications of either could be for the other.

Is he gearing up for an election?

It hasn’t escaped the notice of many commentators that a number of prominent Vote Leave staff have joined Johnson’s new Downing Street operation. Indeed, with a number of strong media performers appointed to his Cabinet, it looks more like the Prime Minister has assembled a campaign team, rather than a Government.

With a shrinking parliamentary majority and the inevitable prospect of political deadlock, there can be little doubt that an early General Election might hold some attraction both for Johnson and many in his team, but it is of course also fraught with risk – not least after the Conservative’s experience during the 2017 General Election.

Johnson’s apparent hard line stance on Brexit and the backstop in particular could provide the Conservatives with the perfect backdrop to a snap election. The Prime Minister will seek to position his demands of the EU as reasonable – and also necessary, given that Parliament has already rejected the current terms three times – and the expectation is that the EU will refuse to compromise. Coupled with a further hardening of Labour’s ‘Remain’ stance, the Prime Minister could go to the country and position himself as the only person seeking to, and prepared to, deliver Brexit – splitting the Remain vote and bringing Brexit Party voters back into the Conservative fold.

For the Vote Leave alumni in Johnson’s team, this would be the perfect campaign message – and many will be encouraging him to follow this path, should the EU behave as expected and resist Johnson’s demands for the backstop to be scrapped. However there are a number of potential obstacles that others in his team will be aware of.

Obstacles to an election

First is that an early dissolution of Parliament would require the support of two-thirds of MPs. Labour would whip its MPs in favour, given that it has long been their policy to seek a General Election. However many would be hesitant about doing so, as would many Remain supporting Conservatives who would potentially lose their seats. A large number of abstentions could prevent the threshold from being met. The Government could instead repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (which sets a fixed period of five years for each Parliament) by a simple majority, but this likely to considered too time-consuming given the need for it to pass both Houses of Parliament.

The second obstacle is the issue of timing. The election would need to be called early in September for it to take place before 31st October. With Parliament on recess until the first week of September, it leaves little time for the necessary procedural requirements and would leave only a week between election day and the UK’s scheduled exit date.

Finally, there is the issue of political risk. Many Conservatives are still scarred from the 2017 experience when a 20-point lead was thrown away during the course of the campaign. Notwithstanding the ‘Boris bounce’, his harder line stance on Brexit would inevitably polarise the campaign that would defined almost exclusively by Brexit. If the result was another hung Parliament, then weeks would have been wasted during the campaign when the UK could have been ramping up it’s no-deal preparation; or if Corbyn became Prime Minister, he would inevitably have to seek a further Article 50 extension to which the EU would likely comply.

Another means of calling an early election would be for Johnson to call a no confidence vote in his own Government. However, that approach would carry considerable risk as it would allow a 14-day period in which Parliament would have the opportunity to pull together an alternative majority, possibly one that is not only opposed to no-deal, but to Brexit as a matter of principle.

The prospect of a clear Conservative win in an election, however, could change the course of the country forever. The Government would effectively have a mandate to pursue a no-deal Brexit and could stave off the accusations that Johnson had steamrollered a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of MPs and the general public.

But how likely is a no-deal Brexit, and is the Prime Minister as enthusiastic about the prospect as he lets on in public?

Will he go for no-deal on 31st October?

There can be little doubt that there has been a clear step-change in how the new Government is viewing and preparing for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31st October. The view in Downing Street is that the EU never took seriously the UK’s previous threats to walk away, and that now they need to demonstrate publicly that the UK is prepared to do so and ready for that eventuality, if they are to have any chance of securing concessions from the EU.

Many in his Cabinet are without doubt content for the UK to walk away and exit on WTO terms; some are positively enthusiastic about doing so. But for Johnson the position is slightly more nuanced. He would prefer a deal. He knows that a no-deal Brexit would be disruptive and that he would get the blame for it and with that, potentially seeing the Conservatives swept from office at a subsequent General Election.

But the visible Government preparation for no-deal is probably not a bluff in itself, Johnson knows that he has to follow-through on it if the EU does not play ball when it comes to renegotiating. If you take the EU’s public statements on matter at face value, it is difficult to conclude how the UK is heading anywhere other than leaving the EU without a deal.

Clearly in the short term this Government has a single objective – to succeed where May failed and take the UK out of the EU by the October deadline. In a sense, the means of doing so are immaterial, with Johnson himself seeing it as an article of faith with British voters.

He faces a difficult balancing act were the UK to leave without a deal; alienating ‘soft’ Brexit Conservatives on the one hand or bringing back all the ‘hard’ Brexit Conservatives who voted for the Brexit Party on the other. It is not clear what Brexit deal may be acceptable to Parliament, but any which includes a configuration of the Irish backstop will not receive support from the DUP and a significant proportion of the Conservative Party.

Time will tell what the ramifications of a no-deal Brexit would be, and if the consequences would be as apocalyptic as many have predicted. But what is clear is that his Government has set the UK on a clear path; having created a hostage to fortune with his comments during the leadership campaign and since taking office, the UK is now inexorably headed for the EU’s exit door without a negotiated agreement.

Johnson has brought a sense of dynamism and excitement to Number 10, and his administration is looking for some quick, easy and popular wins to see them through the difficulties ahead. However, Brexit will define the Johnson premiership for decades, and there is a risk that he might not survive long enough as Prime Minister to shape a more meaningful legacy for his Government.

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