21st Feb 2024

Johnson quits, leaving Brexit headaches to successor

  • Boris Johnson resigning on Thursday, outside Downing Street — blaming the 'herd instinct' of his own MPs, without apologising (Photo: Downing Street)
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British prime minister Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative party leader on Thursday afternoon (7 July), starting a race among Conservative MPs to replace him, but leaving behind a range of issues — not least Brexit, Northern Ireland, and Scottish independence — for his successor to deal with.

After resignations from more than 50 ministerial and government aides in the space of 48 hours, Johnson admitted he had lost the confidence of his own party, but declared he would stay on as prime minister until a successor was elected — by the Conservative party, not by the British public.

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Without apologising — instead blaming the "herd instinct" of his own MPs at Westminster— Johnson resigned outside Downing Street, while conceding "no one is remotely indispensable" in politics, and insisting he still had a "vast mandate" and his party was only "a handful of points behind in the polls".

The Conservatives have governed since 2010, albeit in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015.

It was still unclear what the exact timetable for electing an internal party successor to Johnson would be, while the opposition Labour party called for a general election, not a change in party leader.

International reaction

There was muted immediate world and European reaction to Johnson's planned departure. At the time of writing, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had not reacted to the news.

Michel Barnier, the French official who negotiated the Brexit deal on behalf of the EU, said: "The departure of Boris Johnson opens a new page in relations with the UK. May it be more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace & stability in NI [Northern Ireland], and more friendly with partners in EU."

Bernd Lange, a German MEP who leads the parliament's trade committee, tweeted: "Finally. End of an undignified spectacle. Boris Johnson was all about maintaining power and his own ego ... We need a new start in relations EU-UK and practical solutions for implementing the [Northern Ireland] protocol."

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a long-time critic of Johnson, said: "Boris Johnson's reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend [former US president] Donald Trump."

There was no immediate reaction from Paris, Berlin, Washington, or Ukrainian leader Volodymr Zelensky, who last month hailed Johnson's narrow victory in a confidence motion among his own MPs.

Those likely to win a race to replace Johnson are all from the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party, ranging from the slight favourite Rishi Sunak (the chancellor who resigned on Tuesday, precipitating this final crisis of Johnson's 2.5-year tenure at Number 10), to current foreign secretary Liz Truss.

Truss flew back early on Thursday from the current G20 summit in Indonesia to begin her likely leadership campaign.

Other candidates are likely to include Sajid Javid, who also resigned as health secretary on Tuesday, and less well-known names such as defence secretary Ben Wallace, and attorney general Suella Braverman, who has already declared she will run.

Brexit background

Johnson took his Conservative party to an 80-seat majority in a snap election in December 2019, shortly after deposing Theresa May as prime minister, and largely on the back of a 'Get Brexit Done' manifesto — in contrast to the opposition Labour party policy of renegotiating with the EU, and then putting that new deal to a second referendum.

Johnson was the public face and de facto leader of the 'Leave' campaign for Britain's 2016 referendum on EU membership, which was won by a razor-thin 52 to 48 percent vote.

That victory lead to the resignation of prime minister David Cameron — a contemporary and rival of Johnson at Oxford University — the next day, and the eventual election of Theresa May as prime minister, who then negotiated most of the Brexit deal eventually signed by Johnson with the EU.

He leaves his successor an ongoing headache of how to square the circle of the EU's border with the UK, on the island of Ireland. Brussels has insisted, for the sake of the single market, and to curtail smuggling, that a border must exist, without threatening the peace established in Northern Ireland between unionists and republicans enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.

Under the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, negotiated and signed by Johnson himself, that means customs checks at one or both ends of the Irish Sea maritime route, in lieu of a physical land border between the north and south of Ireland.

But that is something strongly objected to by the Democratic Unionist party in Belfast, and thus a barrier to the resurrection of the power-sharing government in the Stormont assembly in Belfast, between the DUP and the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein.

Johnson, as PM, introduced a bill to break international law by derogating unilaterally from the treaty he himself signed.


Meanwhile, in one of his final acts as prime minister on Wednesday, Johnson refused legal permission for the devolved government in Scotland, headed by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, to hold a second independence referendum in 2023.

Sturgeon on Thursday called Johnson "manifestly unfit" to have ever been prime minister and tweeted: "It's time for that choice", referring to the planned plebiscite on breaking from the rest of the United Kingdom — and potentially rejoining the EU.

Labour leader Kier Starmer, a former shadow Brexit secretary under previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, called for an election, rather than a swap in Tory leadership, saying "we need a proper change of government."

EU takes legal action against UK over post-Brexit trade

"Let's call a spade a spade, this is illegal," EU commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said on the UK's move to introduce legislation suspending parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, as the commission launched several probes against London.

UK shows 'bad faith' in post-Brexit talks, Irish PM says

"It is perfectly reasonable to look for ways to improve the operation of the protocol, but unfortunately what we have seen are bad-faith efforts to undermine a treaty freely entered into," Irish premier Michael Martin told MEPs.


Sturgeon's 2023 'referendum' gamble for Scotland

The independence campaign launch featured a new Scottish government report, comparing the UK's economic and social record with those of other European states — and arguing, unsurprisingly, that Scotland should be independent as a result.

EU warns Truss to stick to Brexit deal

The former foreign minister was the one who introduced Northern Ireland protocol bill earlier this year, which would allow the UK government to abandon parts of the protocol — in breach of its divorce agreement with the EU.


A second von der Leyen term at EU helm 'not a done deal'

German conservative Ursula von der Leyen is seeking reappointment as European Commission president after the June elections. However, her leadership over the past years has triggered internal frustrations that cast uncertainty on her reelection.

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