British Prime Minister Johnson’s political career may have ended two weeks ago. But the Conservative deputies’ vote of no confidence in the House of Commons will be far behind and will divert attention from future crises.
Boris Johnson has an amazing talent. Barely two weeks ago, the British Prime Minister’s political career was almost over. He narrowly survived the Conservative MPs’ vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, with 41 percent of its own faction voting against. A large part of the population in the polls calls for his resignation and at the celebrations the Queen’s Jubilee was publicly announced. And yet Johnson still continues. Instead of talking about “Partygate” and its bad behavior during coronavirus measures, we always focus on new crises.
“The British call this a ‘dead cat’ strategy,” explains Nicolai von Ondarza of the Science and Politics Foundation in an interview with ntv.de. “When there’s a dead cat on the table, everyone talks about it, not the scandal that preceded it,” says a UK expert. And it works, because there are at least two dead cats on the table this time. “Both the renewed escalation with the EU on Northern Ireland and the deportation to Rwanda are a strategy to divert attention from the ‘Partygate’,” says von Ondarza.
Just a week after the vote of no confidence, Johnson and his government are provoking another crisis. Last Monday, they introduced a bill in the House of Commons that would unilaterally circumvent the Northern Ireland Protocol on the Brexit Agreement – and would probably violate international law. A conflict that has been going on for a long time. It is no surprise to political scientist Anthony Glees that he is boiling again now. “It’s Boris Johnson who is fighting for his political survival,” Professor Emeritus at Buckingham University told ntv.de.
No economic argument for the Northern Ireland issue
The Brexit Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, was signed by the British Prime Minister himself. Johnson welcomed the 2019 arrangement as a major breakthrough that replaced a policy designed by his predecessor, Theresa May. This insurance would assume that Britain remained within the single market and the customs union to prevent the customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. With the protocol, the kingdom could break away. The customs border is now by sea between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
“At the time, it was said that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s single market, gaining the best of EU membership and remaining part of the United Kingdom,” explains Glees. That paid off for the British province. “People are better off economically because they can sell their goods within the EU and also get workers from all over the EU. We can’t do that in the rest of the UK.” From an economic point of view, therefore, there is no point in questioning this agreement, says the political scientist.
So there is the political will behind it. The British government says it is concerned about the Good Friday Agreement, which will ensure peace in Northern Ireland. It follows the arguments of the Northern Irish Unionist DUP, which is against unification with the Republic of Ireland. He has been blocking the formation of the Belfast government for weeks, demanding that Northern Ireland relinquish its special status for Brexit.
Dispute with Brussels and Strasbourg
The EU responded to Johnson’s proposal with infringement proceedings. Political scientists from Ondarza expect two more steps, but not a full escalation. Because the draft Northern Ireland Protocol must go through both chambers of parliament. “The British government does not have a majority in the House of Lords and many conservative lords are particularly critical of violations of international law,” says the British expert.
The EU knows that too. “It is unlikely that the bill will pass the UK parliament by the end of this year,” von Ondarza said. Moreover, it is not clear whether Johnson will survive politically at all this year. Brussels is therefore responding with “strategic patience”, as von Ondarza calls it, and as a third step it will try to indicate to Northern Ireland that it can be spoken to – unlike the narrative that London often tries to use.
Meanwhile, London has been harboring a second conflict with Europe for some time. This time not with Brussels, but with Strasbourg. On Wednesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – which has nothing to do with the EU but is a body of the Council of Europe – the first planned deportation flight to Rwanda. The British government has reached an agreement with the African country worth 120 million pounds. The agreement stipulates that people who are deported to the UK will end up in Rwanda and receive accommodation and asylum procedures there. The purpose of this deterrent is to prevent smugglers from continuing to steer people across the English Channel on ships unfit for navigation.
A “terrible” deal in Rwanda
Due to the dispute with Strasbourg, some Tory deputies have already threatened to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the United Kingdom helped found in the 1950s. But this is not particularly likely. “I think it’s more like a shadow box,” says von Ondarza. “I don’t think that’s something the British government is serious about.” This would jeopardize not only the Brexit agreement, but also the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, because the government must ensure that the British province is a member.
In any case, the Rwandan agreement is controversial. Following the ECtHR’s decision, the British courts now have to clarify whether this practice is lawful. But criticism now ranges from human rights activists to the British royal family. “It’s really awful,” says Glees. The British government is criminalizing the search for asylum. “Eventually, Rwanda will decide what happens to the people,” Glees said.
The expert sees a policy typical of Johnson. The Rwandan deportations and the renewed issue of Northern Ireland are a radicalization of British politics. Johnson is trying to stay in power with new crises. “Anything that divides people and divides their opinions is important to him,” says Glees. Rwandan deportations met with the consent of about 35 percent of voters. “If you take a closer look, the people who voted for Brexit in 2019 and the people who voted for the Conservatives are at that 35 percent,” says Glees.
Labor cannot benefit from weakness
Johnson’s side, on the other hand, is less critical. “Rwandan politics is supported by a majority of the Conservative Party, including some who have just supported a vote of no confidence in Johnson,” von Ondarza said. It also helps the Labor Party to find its own position on Rwandan deportations and the issue of Northern Ireland. Because a significant proportion of their constituents enforce stricter rules against illegal migration. In addition, it is difficult for the former “Stay” party, which no longer wants to question Brexit, to take a stand on the Northern Ireland issue.
All that remains is the Conservative Party that Johnson could fall through. “But there is no clear successor at the moment,” says von Ondarza. “And for many, Johnson is the one who pushed for Brexit. It’s a great achievement, especially for conservative voters.” You can win elections with him. But now the constant scandals cost approval. “Due to his transgression and untrustworthiness, he is much more controversial in the party and also at the basic level. However, he is still supported by about 60 percent of deputies and conservative voters,” says von Ondarza.
So Johnson’s failure is only a matter of time? If political scientist Glees succeeds, it could be ready in the next few weeks. Then there are by-elections in two regions, the conservatives there are in danger of going bankrupt. Political scientist von Ondarza is a little more reserved. “In my estimate, Johnson is very likely to survive the by-election.” In October, there is a large party conference of the Conservative Party. “Until then, however, there must be a significant change of mood in our own faction,” says von Ondarza.
In addition, other scandals are already emerging. A few days ago, the British government’s “ethical adviser” Christopher Geidt resigned, whose resignation has since been announced by Downing Street. In addition, there are living costs, which are also rising sharply in the UK. And the commission of inquiry is just clarifying whether the British prime minister lied to parliament during the “Partygate”. “I think if Johnson falls for something, it’s a combination of these events, but not just one,” von Ondarza said.