Boris brings political uncertainty but his effect on public affairs will be minimal

Barring a miracle, Boris Johnson will be announced as the new Conservative leader - and our next Prime Minister - by lunchtime, but what will his premiership hold for public affairs, politics and Brexit?

The uncertainty that Boris brings will be confined to politics rather than public affairs, argues Burhan Al-Gailani
The uncertainty that Boris brings will be confined to politics rather than public affairs, argues Burhan Al-Gailani

For public affairs professionals, not much will change; many agency clients are already prepared for no-deal, and the value of consultants will continue to be in helping them navigate the volatility that the next few months will hold.

My guess is politics will be more unpredictable than ever, thanks to Boris Johnson’s style of leadership, and the sheer number of competing voices in his orbit, and Parliament more broadly, who will all have a say on Brexit.

Boris is clear that Britain must leave the EU by the end of October "do or die" – and certainly before an early general election – to avoid catastrophe for the Tories.

And although he would prefer to leave with a deal, he says he is prepared to walk away without one. The key focus will again be the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’.

Initially there were signs that Boris might accept a time-limit, or the use of technology to avoid a hard border between the UK and Ireland, but during the campaign his position hardened significantly.

Instead he seems to want to junk the backstop entirely and move swiftly towards a comprehensive free trade deal.

The EU has reiterated its opposition to discussing the future relationship before agreeing the terms of departure.

To get around this, Johnson has threatened to withhold Britain’s £39bn ‘divorce’ payment - a move some believe would be illegal - and suggested that free trade could continue under WTO rules while a future deal was being negotiated - which a range of domestic and European voices have already flatly rejected.

So it’s easy to see the challenges Prime Minister Johnson would face. Would he really risk withholding the divorce payment or going for no-deal, given the potential negative impacts on Britain’s international standing, the economy, and his own future electoral prospects?

Are these just negotiating tactics to get a better deal? And would the EU even regard these as threats Mr Johnson can credibly make, given the Parliamentary arithmetic?

In recent days we’ve seen signs of how European leaders plan to respond. On the one hand, warm words from the Irish and overtures to key Johnson allies to avoid no-deal and seek a compromise.

Beneath this, the EU’s position remains firm, for now. The withdrawal agreement, which was crafted to match Britain’s red lines, is not up for discussion.

While there may be scope to amend the accompanying political declaration, the onus is on the UK to come forward with constructive proposals and show how these can get through Parliament.

Ultimately, as with his predecessor, political matters beyond Johnson’s control may well prove decisive.

Whether Britain leaves the EU with or without a deal, or we are plunged into an early general election, will be determined by fewer than 100 MPs, including the Speaker; the Tory ‘Spartans’ who want Brexit at all costs and the so-called ‘Gaukeward Squad’ of ministers who oppose ‘no-deal’ so much that they will not serve under Johnson and may even be prepared to bring down the Government.

These key decision-makers will be joined by the DUP and Labour MPs representing Leave seats who are prepared to finally to vote for Brexit, preferably with a new deal, but under no-deal if necessary.

Burhan Al-Gailani is director, public affairs, at APCO Worldwide

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