Prime Minister Boris Johnson: How did we get here? (A timeline)
Source: Chatham House
The parliamentary recess now underway gives us an opportunity to recap the myriad developments and political tectonic shifts of recent months. We last left you news of the convocation of cross-party Brexit talks between May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour, as the UK teetered on the edge of a no-deal departure. The volatility of British politics has made the events of the intervening months read like a condensed timeline of years of political action.
New leaders abound and election shockwaves have changed the landscape. Uncertainty has been, and is, the only constant. Needless to say, the looming spectre of Brexit has governed the tide of these historic times, which are not without their eleventh-hour protagonist - the emblematic beLEAVEr: Prime Minister Boris Johnson the “energised”.
The timeline laid out here takes you from the Brexit extension in April to Boris Johnson’s first days in office. Let’s dive into this sizeable briefing.
Theresa May’s Doomed Premiership
Source: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916
11 April: the EU grants the UK a sixth month extension on Article 50, averting a no-deal departure with just a day to spare. The new deadline is set for 31 October - spooky indeed - and is accompanied by a plea from European Council President Donald Tusk, “please do not waste time”.
Crucially, the extension lays the path for the UK’s participation in EU parliamentary elections. Months prior, May had said that it would be “unacceptable” to ask the British population to take part. Theoretically, the time between the 12 April deadline rollover the 23 May EU elections presents a window of opportunity through which the withdrawal agreement could be passed and ratified. A month later the UK would concede to taking part due to a lack of time in which to ratify the withdrawal agreement.
12 April: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party launches with its sights set on the European elections. Its emergence unequivocally condemns UKIP to utter irrelevance and forecasts the rise of Boris Johnson (more on that further down). The Brexit Party is to become the bastion of do-or-die Brexit. However, Farage suggests that it would not be a single issue party. He vows, rather ominously, to “change politics” altogether.
2 May: The English local elections see massive gains for the unabashedly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats at the expense of the Conservatives and Labour - a sign of things to come. The Tories lose a whopping 1,334 seats, UKIP lose 145 and Labour lose 82. The Greens gain 194 councillors, Independents pick up 662 seats and the Lib Dems win the night with a gain of 703.
Analysis: The results signalled remainers’ dissatisfaction with the way Labour and the Conservatives have handled Brexit. Labour’s Brexit ambiguity ushers remainers to the safe comfort of the Lib Dems’ remain camp; the Conservatives alienate those in the centre-right by pandering to hard brexiters.
It’s important to note that while the Lib Dems are resurgent, their support should be viewed with care. That is to say, the increased support for the Lib Dems should not be taken as a wholesale approval of their centrist politics. Rather, the renewed support for the Lib Dems seems to have a lot more to do with positioning on one particular issue - Brexit.
Local election results - courtesy of the BBC
After the worst local elections result in over 20 years for the Tories, and an unexpected loss for Labour - whose MPs were hoping that the local elections would indicate a desire for a Labour government - they both double down on cross-party talks to break free from the Brexit deadlock.
16 May: Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, announces that Theresa May would set a timetable for her departure in early June after, essentially, a fourth vote on her withdrawal agreement - one which would never materialise.
17 May: Labour abandons cross-party talks. A letter from Jeremy Corbyn to Theresa May is published. In it, the Labour leader claims that the policy gap between the two parties cannot be bridged, he cites their positions on a customs union and on US chlorinated chickens as examples. In addition, Corbyn writes that he has no confidence in the Government to stick to any concessions or any agreement given its weak and unstable state.
23 May: After a steady lead in the polls in the run up to the EU parliamentary elections, the Brexit Party finally bursts onto the scene on election day with the most votes (31.6%) and seats (29) for a single party. It’s followed by the Lib Dems with 16 seats and 20.3% of the vote share, Labour with 10 seats and 14.1% of the vote, the Greens with 7 seats and 12.1% of the votes, and the Conservatives in fourth with only 4 seats and 9.1% of the vote.
EU elections results - courtesy of the BBC
Analysis: The EU elections results revealed the polarised state of the nation and the failure of the two main parties to present an adequate vision of the future. A divided electorate sought political expression in diametrically opposed articulations of Brexit - remainers flocked to the Lib Dems on the one hand, hard brexiters looked to the newly formed Brexit Party on the other.
Interestingly, the explicitly pro-remain parties - Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru - together received 37% of the vote share, against 31.6% of the Brexit Party. Labour and the Conservatives are not counted in either as their MP’s are equally as divided as the nation on the issue, making neither explicitly pro or remain. All in all, these results may suggest a shift in the British electorate’s Brexit stance.
24 May: After a shocking display for her party in the EU elections and with the Brexit Party snapping at her heels, Theresa May bows to intense pressure and announces that she will resign on 7 June, setting in motion a leadership scrap.
This brings to a close a dogged premiership that saw its domestic agenda stall as the Brexit crisis unfolded; one that survived two Tory confidence votes, watched helplessly as an unprecedented bill allowed MPs to take over parliamentary business, failed to meet two Brexit deadlines and failed three attempts to pass the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Tory Leadership Election
Thumbnail source: Conservatives
5 June: At a hustings event, Dominic Raab becomes the first Tory leadership contender to consider the prorogation of Parliament as a means to ensure the UK’s departure from the European Union by the 31 October deadline. The subject of prorogation would go on to be a fixed talking point throughout the leadership race, with Boris Johnson refusing to rule it out.
Analysis: Do-or-die Brexit rhetoric was long afloat before this, but this radical, undemocratic proposal set the pace in a battle amongst leadership contenders for the title of baddest brexiter in town. Here, you can start to see the gravitational effect of the Brexit Party against a backdrop of chitter chatter about the existential threat facing the Tories as a result of Brexit. The Conservative Party seem to be course ever right-ward in response.
10 June: The Tory leadership race commences in earnest after 10 candidates receive the required number of nominations (8) to proceed to MP ballots. They are: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Esther Mcvey, Andrea Leadsome, Rory Stewart, Michael Gove, Mark Harper, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock. Map ballots will reduce the number of candidates to two before handing the contest over to the Conservative Party membership for a final round of voting. Boris Johnson takes the lead in the polls and is expected to win handsomely
13-19 June: The first three rounds of Tory MP ballots eliminate all but Gove, Hunt, Johnson and Javid. During live TV debates, Sajid Javid - Home Secretary at the time - succeeds in getting all other candidates to back an independent inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative Party.
Johnson brings up the notion of using GATT 24 (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, article 24, under World Trade Organisation law) to maintain frictionless trade in goods in the event of a no-deal Brexit, thus avoiding huge economic disruptions and a hard border on the island of Ireland. The terms of the article allow for tariff-free trade in goods for up to 10 years whilst all parties negotiate a permanent trade agreement.
Analysis: GATT 24 isn’t a viable route to no-deal Brexit salvation. It would only apply if there’s an interim trade agreement in place between the UK and the EU, be it temporary or set out in principle. A post on the Commons Library website states that the Brexit withdrawal agreement would qualify as an interim agreement.
However, a no-deal brexit would mean no deal at all; no interim agreement; no temporary agreement; no agreement whatsoever that could be used to trigger GATT 24. This was notably emphasised by the then International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney.
Boris Johnson seemed unaware of this stipulation in an interview with Andrew Niel. In any case, the EU would almost certainly seek to guarantee the Irish backstop in any interim agreement, creating a contradiction in the championing of GATT 24 as a means of avoiding the backstop.
In addition, the obscure WTO article cannot be triggered unilaterally. It requires bilateral consent, meaning that the UK couldn’t impose GATT 24 on the EU. It’s far from a guaranteed fail safe.
20 June: The last two rounds of Tory MP ballots reduce the number of leadership candidates to two: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The leader of the Conservative Party and the next Prime Minister will be decided by 160,000 or so party members in July.
Analysis: Johnson thrashed his competition in each round, coming top with almost three times the amount of votes than second placed candidates. His do-or-die Brexit bluster clinched the support of hard-brexiters with ease, while his ability to swivel back and forth between hard-line and moderacy - at various points emphasising his political agenda as progressive, modern conservatism - attracted more moderate MPs.
Once again, we can look to the emergence of the Brexit Party as a pivot for analysis. All 10 candidates in the race, in one way or another, embraced the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. This reflected a wider acknowledgement from Tory MPs that fudging Brexit would bring about the demise of the flailing Conservative Party - once described as the “zombie” party by Katy Balls for relying on twice as much in donations from the dead than from the living.
The feeling of demise becomes increasingly tangible with the notable presence of the Brexit Party, whose leader announced its readiness to participate in a general election. The Brexit Party’s populism appeals to hard-right bases and appears to be eating into the Conservatives’ voter share. This may help us explain why Bo Jo stormed to victory in MP ballots, with Tory MPs perhaps thinking about the preservation of their party through the election of a true Brexit believer.
22 June: The first in a series of hustings kicks off. The last two candidates in the leadership battle fight it out on a platform steeped in neo-liberal ideas, uncosted government spending policies and Brexit strongman posturing.
Video footage emerges of Steve Bannon, the alt-right activist and Donald Trump’s former Chief Strategist, in which he claims to have advised Boris Johnson on his resignation speech as Foreign Secretary. Steve Bannon has previously told supports to wear the labels of racist, xenophobe and nativist as badges of honour. Nigel Farage would go on to confirm that Bannon and Johnson maintain contact.
2 July: In the background, MEPs take their seats in Strasbourg. The Lib Dems sport t-shirts emblazoned their fiery Brexit tagline, B****cks to Brexit. Brexit Party MEPs make a spectacle of proceedings by turning their backs during the EU anthem.
15 July: Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson refuse to condemn as racist a tweet by Trump, in which he writes that four US congresswoman - referring to The Squad - should go back to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
Analysis: This comes after the UK’s ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, resigned in the wake of a row over leaked emails critical of Trump’s administration. Chatter from Whitehall suggested that Darroch resigned after Johnson failed to back him in a televised debate. This whole episode showed Johnson’s and Hunt’s obsequious deference to the Trump administration, surely in an attempt to court good relations on which a trade agreement would be built.
16 July: Ursula Von Der Leyen, Germany’s Defence Minister, is elected as the first female European Commission President. She affirms her openness to another Brexit extension, although she also states that the content of the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiation. This is a position firmly held within the bloc and made explicit long before, which puts into doubt any plans to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement before 31 October.
22 July: Jo Swinson becomes the new leader - and the first female leader - of the Lib Dems, taking over from Vince Cable. She effectively becomes the leading anti-brexit, remain voice in the UK. With the Lib Dems on the up, she states “I am ready to take my party into a general election and win it.” She opens the door to all MPs disillusioned with their parties’ handling of Brexit.
Analysis: Swinson’s call to potential Tory defectors is pretty significant given that the Conservatives have a wafer thin majority and more than a few Tory MPs have expressed their aversion to the Brexit discourse within their party.
23 July: Boris Johnson is elected the Leader of the Conservative Party, and thus the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He defeats Hunt with 66% of the vote, in which less than 160,000 mostly white, mostly men Conservative Party members participated. This marks the arrival of Brexit’s eleventh-hour protagonist who vows to deliver on Brexit with just 100 days to go.
In his victory speech the newly elected leader of the Conservatives highlights that the acronym of his campaign slogan, DUD for “deliver, unite and defeat”, was not perfect. He follows this up with: “But they forgot the final E my friends, E for energise. And I say to all the doubters, dude, we are going to energise the country.”
24 July: The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act passes with an amendment tabled in the House of Lords requiring Parliament to sit at regular intervals after September in the event of its prorogation. These sittings are to primarily serve the restoration of the power sharing executive in Northern Ireland, which has been without government since 2017. However, the amendment was seen as a mechanism designed to block the prorogation of Parliament as a means to force through a no-deal Brexit. Find out more about the Act and NI’s power sharing executive here.
New PM same Brexit
24 July: Theresa may tenders her resignation to the Queen and recommends Boris Johnson as her successor. Johnson is appointed Prime Minister and delivers a blustering speech in front of 10 Downing street, in which he reaffirms his commitment to leaving the EU by 31 October “no ifs, no buts”, then blames the current Brexit failure on pessimism and a general lack of belief (this is where the E for energise in DUDE can be seen as an integral part of Johnson’s philosophy).
The new PM states his desire to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement in the 98 days leading up to the UK’s departure. However, he also concretises his willingness to take the UK out of the EU without a deal and to withhold the £39 billion divorce payment while simultaneously pinning the blame on the EU for any difficult outcome. In addition, Johnson refuses checks on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland while also rejecting the Irish backstop entirely.
On the domestic front, Johnson pledges 20,000 new police officers, 20 new hospital upgrades, and new road and rail infrastructure. He commits to fixing the crisis of social care, raising per pupil school funding and raising the living wage. To boost economic activity Johnson proposes building free ports and easing anti genetic modification rules.
A full transcript of his speech can be found here. An annotated version of the speech - provided by the Financial Times - can be found here. You can also take a look at our roundup of the new PM's domestic policy pledges.
24-25 July: Johnson puts together his cabinet in a huge reshuffle, with 17 out of 30 ministers either quitting or getting the axe. The key requirement to serve as a cabinet ministers under the PM is to not oppose a no-deal Brexit. The Sutton Trust reveals that nearly two thirds of the cabinet went to private schools. This infographic from the Guardian shows how representative Johnson’s new cabinet is. Here’s a list of some of the most notable cabinet ministers:
Sajid Javid: Chancellor of the Exchequer
Dominic Raab: Foreign Secretary
Priti Patel: Home Secretary
Stephen Barcley: Brexit Secretary
Amber Rudd: Work and Pensions Secretary
Michael Gove: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Andrea Leadsome: Business Secretary
Other notable names include Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons and Dominic Cummings - the former director of the Vote Leave campaign - as a key advisor in number 10.
The PM sets up the XS (Exit Strategy) committee, otherwise known as the ‘Brexit war cabinet’, to make key Brexit decision and no-deal plans. £2.1 billion is made available for no-deal planning, drawing criticism from shadow chancellor John McDonell, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, Lib Dem MP Chuka Umunna and the SNP’s Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins.
As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove is widely seen as the head of no-deal preparations. Almost immediately after his appointment, Gove states that the Government is operating under the assumption of a no-deal Brexit, something which Boris Johnson would go on to contradict.
Similarly, Johnson’s administration tows a hard-line on opening negotiations with the EU. Johnson’s official spokeswoman reveals that there will be no talks unless the EU scrap the backstop.
28-31 July: PM Boris Johnson sets out on a tour of the devolved nations of the UK, heading to Scotland first with Northern Ireland and Wales to follow. He is received by a chorus of boos in Scotland and Wales. The Irish republican party Sinn Fein, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and the SNP have all spoken out about the fragile state of the union and the potential consequences of a hard-Brexit.
2 August: The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election is won by the Lib Dems with 43.5% of the vote, overturning a Conservative majority of 8,083 and reducing the Governments working majority in the House of Commons to one. Plaid Cymru and the Green Party stood aside to boost the Lib Dems, effectively forming a remain alliance.
Interestingly, the Brexit Party’s vote share - the party came in third - would have been enough to see the Conservative hold the seat. This is just the latest manifestation of the increasing threat posed to the Conservative Party by Brexit and the Brexit Party.
Brecon and Radnorshire by-election results - courtesy of the BBC
Key dates to keep in mind:
24-26 August: The new PM will attend the G7 summit.
3 September: Parliament returns after a five week recess but only for about two weeks as conference season begins in late september. These two weeks are set to be explosive with the Government’s majority down to one and a confidence vote seemingly imminent. Tory rebels could defect to the Lib Dems or vote against the Government from within their own party.
21-25 September: The Labour Party Conference takes place. Corbyn will undoubtedly come under intense pressure over his Brexit ambiguity. It will be interesting to see the direction the party takes at conference.
29 September-2 October: Conservative Party Conference takes place. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives will be in the spotlight. Brexit hard-liners and Johnson supports will expect an unwavering continuation of a do-or-die approach to Brexit.
17-18 October: Johnson’s first EU summit.
31 October: Brexit day; the UK leaves the European Union.