LONDON — Anyone hoping the British prime minister’s demise will soften Brexit should think again.
The departure of Boris Johnson, the leader who sealed Brexit and pushed the U.K. government to think about its opportunities, may open 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’s ample consensus among the likely candidates in favor of tweaking the Northern Ireland protocol, a crucial and long-negotiated part of the Brexit divorce deal which prevents a hard land border between the region and the Republic of Ireland but introduces checks on goods entering the Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
Legislation giving British ministers power to unilaterally break this agreement, long controversial and disliked in European capitals and in Washington, now won’t pass before Johnson leaves office, giving his successor the option to ditch or amend it.
“[The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill] won’t complete its parliamentary passage in this time,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, told Channel 4 News Thursday. “It will have further stages in the House of Commons but it won’t get anywhere near the House of Lords. An incoming prime minister would be able to say I’m not continuing with it.”
But even Remain-supporting Tory leadership contenders, such as Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat, might find it difficult to ditch the bill — especially if they reach power with the support of the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Tory Brexiteers.
Since Conservative leaders are first selected by MPs and then voted on by the wider party membership, candidates cannot ignore the party base.
“They have populated the Conservative Party with a bunch of people for whom this is an act of faith,” said Anand Menon, director of the think tank the UK in a Changing Europe. “The party has changed dramatically.”
Last month, Hunt reportedly approached ERG members with the pledge to remove the Irish Sea checks introduced by the protocol on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
In his pitch for leadership Friday, Tugendhat wrote that “everyone in the next government will be committed to … fixing the Northern Ireland protocol” — without setting out how — and added that “the full advantages of Brexit are yet to be unleashed.”
Steve Baker, a former chair of the ERG who is also considering a bid for leadership, said Johnson’s departure is “immaterial” for Brexit.
“The direction of the U.K. is now certain, including resolving the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol,” he told POLITICO. “The main question is whether the next PM is enthusiastic about it and therefore delivers well. From my conversations with them, I know this applies to Jeremy and Tom too.”
New government, same politics
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 unionists regard the protocol as cutting off the region from the rest of the U.K. and refuse to re-start a power-sharing regional executive until the trade rules are scrapped.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, reiterated this position this week, calling on Johnson’s successor to get rid of the protocol, and warning a “fully functioning devolved government in Stormont and the protocol cannot coexist.”
Some in Whitehall hope the EU may be keener to make concessions to a prime minister they like and can trust more than Johnson. That personal distrust was manifest in EU diplomats’ reactions to Johnson’s resignation.
“Clearly part of the issue has been how they felt about the PM,” a U.K. official said. “That should never have been a question, it’s about Northern Ireland, not individuals. Hopefully they see that given everyone agrees the protocol isn’t working.”
MPs are due to scrutinize the proposals starting Wednesday, but the bill is now not expected to go through all its parliamentary stages in the Commons before it breaks for the summer.
Euroskeptic pressure will also push the next government toward slashing EU regulations or at least talking about it, said Menon. “It will be impossible for a new prime minister not to at least try to give the appearance of doing this,” he added.
Those hoping for a radical change of Brexit policy may need to hope an election ushers in a new governing party. The agenda set out by Labour leader Keir Starmer last week still keeps Britain out of the EU single market and customs union, Menon said, but there might be room for deals on policy cooperation in areas such as foreign affairs.
“The political atmosphere under Labour would be very different than under the Conservatives in the sense that Labour wants to have a good relationship with the European Union,” he added.
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