LONDON — Anyone hoping the British prime minister’s demise will sweeten Brexit should think again.
The departure of Boris Johnson, the leader who sealed Brexit and pushed the UK government to ponder its opportunities, could pave the way for a new prime minister less invested in the project. But any immediate successor will find it politically impossible to endorse a softer type of Brexit.
There is broad consensus among the likely contenders in favor of amending the Northern Ireland Protocol, a crucial and long-negotiated part of the Brexit divorce deal that prevents a hard land border between the region and the Republic of Ireland. Ireland, but introduced controls on goods entering the North. Ireland from the rest of the UK
Legislation giving UK ministers the power to unilaterally sever the deal, long controversial and hated in European capitals and Washington, will no longer pass until Johnson leaves office, giving his successor the option to drop it or resign it. edit.
“[The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill] will not complete its parliamentary passage in that time frame,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, told Channel 4 News on Thursday. “There will be further stages in the House of Commons, but it will not reach the House of Lords anywhere. An incoming Prime Minister could say that I am not continuing. »
But even Tory leadership candidates who support Remain, such as Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat, could struggle to drop the bill – especially if they come to power with the backing of the European Research Group (ERG ) hardline Brexiteer Conservatives.
Since Conservative leaders are first selected by MPs and then voted on by the full party membership, candidates cannot ignore the party base.
“They’ve populated the Conservative Party with a group of people for whom it’s a leap of faith,” said Anand Menon, director of think tank The UK in a Changing Europe. “The party has changed dramatically.”
Last month, Hunt reportedly approached ERG members with a pledge to remove Irish Sea controls introduced by the Protocol on goods transported from Britain to Northern Ireland.
In his leadership address on Friday, Tugendhat wrote that “all members of the next government will pledge to…fix the Northern Ireland protocol” – without specifying how – and added that “all the benefits of the Brexit have not yet been exploited”.
Steve Baker, a former ERG chairman who is also considering a leadership bid, said Johnson’s departure was “unimportant” to Brexit.
“The direction of the UK is now certain, including the resolution of the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol,” he told POLITICO. “The main question is whether the next Prime Minister is enthusiastic about it and therefore delivers well. From my conversations with them, I know that applies to Jeremy and Tom as well.
New government, same policy
Whoever wins the race will also face the same conundrum that tied the hands of Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May: some of Northern Ireland’s trade unionists see the protocol as cutting off the region from the rest of the UK and refuse to restart a power-share regional executive until trade rules are removed.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, reiterated that position this week, calling on Johnson’s successor to get rid of protocol and warning that a “fully functioning devolved government in Stormont and protocol cannot co-exist”.
Some in Whitehall hope the EU may be more willing to make concessions to a prime minister they like and can trust more than Johnson. This personal distrust manifested itself in the reactions of European diplomats to Johnson’s resignation.
“Clearly part of the problem was what they thought of the prime minister,” a British official said. “It should never have been a question, this is about Northern Ireland, not individuals. Hopefully they see that, given that everyone is in agreement, the protocol is not working.
MPs are due to consider the proposals from Wednesday, but the bill is no longer expected to go through its full parliamentary stages in the Commons before the summer break.
Eurosceptic pressure will also push the next government to cut European regulations or at least talk about them, Menon said. “It will be impossible for a new prime minister not to at least try to give the appearance of doing so,” he added.
Those hoping for a sea change in Brexit politics may have to hope that an election will usher in a new ruling party. The program set out by Labor leader Keir Starmer last week still keeps Britain out of the EU’s single market and customs union, Menon said, but there could be room for deals on the political cooperation in areas such as foreign affairs.
“The political atmosphere under Labor would be very different to that under the Conservatives in the sense that Labor wants to have a good relationship with the European Union,” he added.
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