A Dangerous Balancing Act for Boris Johnson

The UK Prime Minister must make a success of the country's solo effort this year and tackle overdue political reforms. Otherwise, the Four-nation country is facing the threat of disintegration. A column by UK editor Pascal Meisser.

«Boris Johnson could face a brutal destiny in the next few years when he won’t be any longer the Prime Minister of «Global Britain», bust just leading «Little England».»

Four years and a half after the referendum, Brexit is now a reality. You can see this in daily life, be it in a supermarket in London where the shelves with citrus fruits from Spain may be empty because of delivery delays. Since January 1st, goods entering the UK are facing new paperwork and more thorough checks at the border. But even if you want to watch a European programme on Netflix (NFLX 612.99 +1.8%), you will see a black TV screen as Brits no longer are permitted to access them.

These are just two examples that show how leaving the European Union has brought some disadvantages for the British, despite the skeleton Brexit deal with the EU. Since 2016, Brexit supporters had been preaching the advantages of going it alone. Now it is up to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make good on these promises. Especially as he can take advantage of an excellent global stage this year. In the coming months, two major political events will take place in the UK. In June, the Heads of State or Government of the G7 will hold their summit in England. In November, Glasgow will host the World Climate Conference COP26.

A new starting position

With these two events, Boris Johnson is given a perfect opportunity to explain to the world why the UK would be a good political and economic partner. He has indeed already been able to close trade agreements with some countries, among them with Switzerland, although in most cases he has merely taken over the templates of the corresponding free trade agreements already in force with the EU, supplemented with a few minor adjustments.

The Prime Minister’s job will not be easy, especially because the world has changed to the Brexiteers’ disadvantage since the Brexit vote in June 2016. At that time, the concept of globalization had been still prevalent.  Brexit supporters saw great opportunities for the country to play among the major economic powers. Today, the global picture is much more complex, and the starting position for the United Kingdom has changed. The trend towards polarisation and deglobalisation does not suit the UK. It wants to act as an important joint between the West and the East.

At the same time, the British government had to learn that it can no longer hide behind the back of an alliance of states on global political issues. To make matters worse, the country is currently not on the best of terms with two of its most important trading partners, China and the US. When the UK sided with its former colony in the conflict between China and Hong Kong last year, the Chinese government threatened retaliation against the UK. The case with the US is different. Boris Johnson has always been an avowed friend of President Donald Trump. He thought a trade agreement with the US, which is vital for the UK, was safe. Until the moment when Joe Biden prevailed in the elections. The problem for Johnson now is that, for historical reasons, the Democrats value the peace in Northern Ireland much more highly than Trump. Last autumn, Johnson was happy to unilaterally change the positions he had negotiated with the EU on Northern Ireland. The border issues between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had taken on political and emotional significance in the Brexit negotiations because after Brexit the new EU external border would have separated Northern Ireland from Ireland. This contradicts the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, which lifted border controls as a remedy to the violence that had previously prevailed.

In addition to the difficulties opening up in the country’s positioning in foreign trade, Johnson is also in danger of being overwhelmed by domestic problems. These have become even more acute with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Viewed from the outside, the United Kingdom is usually perceived as one country, but strictly speaking, it is a union of the four nations England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, whose regional parliaments have certain limited decision-making powers. During the fight against the pandemic, clear differences emerged. While England under Johnson’s leadership always acted hesitantly, the other three regions reacted faster and more strictly. Above all, this has implications for Scotland and its independence efforts. Since the coronavirus outbreak, support for Scottish secession from the United Kingdom has hovered consistently above 50%. In the referendum just seven years ago, 55% of Scots voted to remain in the union of nations.

Nevertheless, most government decisions are still centralised and often focused on the needs of London whereas regional sensitivities are often neglected. For example, the brand-new furlough scheme was introduced last Spring when the City of London was deserted and many restaurants there faced financial ruin. But it is not only in Scotland that voices in favour of another referendum have been growing for some time now. In Northern Ireland, too, forces could once again be gathering for unification with the Republic of Ireland at some point in the future.

A modern bicameral system is needed

During the Brexit negotiations and the fight against the pandemic, these domestic challenges have been drowned out. By next May at the latest, when the Scottish Parlament election is on the agenda, calls for another independence referendum are likely to grow louder. Westminster has said it will not give the necessary consent. Johnson said in a recent interview with The Times, in his somewhat casual way, that such a vote should take place at most every 40 years. However, the pressure is likely to increase further if the Scottish National Party (SNP (SHF 41.10 +1.08%)) under leader Nicola Sturgeon manages to maintain or even increase its majority in the election.

Johnson had said when he took office a year and a half ago that he wanted to be the Prime Minister for the whole Kingdom. If he does not want to go down in history as the prime minister who risks the break-up of the Union, he must press ahead with urgently needed political reforms. The greatest need for action is the representation of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Westminster. Today, the bicameral system comprises the popularly elected House of Commons, which is heavily influenced by party politics, and the House of Lords, where life peerages elected on the proposal of the Prime Minister sit. The House of Lords now has 792 members, making it the largest second chamber in the world.

If Johnson wants to lead the United Kingdom into the future in its present form, he would at least have to question this archaic chamber system and strive for a modern representation of the regions. One example could be the Swiss model of the Council of States. This would be a logical next step for Westminster as they have already delegated more and more political competences to the Nations since the installation of regional parliaments in 1998. Otherwise, Boris Johnson could face a brutal destiny in the next few years when he won’t be any longer the Prime Minister of «Global Britain», bust just leading «Little England».