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Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson will this week (almost certainly) fulfil his lifelong ambition to be Prime Minister. He now has the opportunity to act out his Churchill fantasy and come to the aid of his country at a time of national crisis, albeit one he was directly involved in helping to create. If he can overcome the many obstacles in his way before calling an election, he stands a good chance of winning and governing from a stronger position. Alternatively, his government could be in crisis almost immediately and collapse like a botched blancmange before Christmas.
As soon as Johnson walks into Downing Street he will find an in-tray piled high, and so many threats to his premiership to manage, that his head will be spinning by the end of the week. There is going to be very little capacity for setting out a domestic agenda and no chance of implementing anything even remotely controversial. The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election early next month is likely to leave Johnson with a working majority of just three. He faces political decisions on Brexit in which it is impossible to please everyone. His poor expectation management and the contradictory reassurances he has given to the splintering Tory factions may come back to haunt him.
He’s not even in Downing Street and he’s already facing defiant resignations from people he was planning to sack. Sir Alan Duncan has quit as a Foreign Office minister in protest against his probable victory and Chancellor Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary David Gauke have already said they intend to resign. As the government defeat on Friday showed, Johnson will face major resistance to a no-deal Brexit policy from an organised and increasingly militant coalition of MPs within the Conservative Party. If Johnson blunders his attempt to amend the Withdrawal Agreement in a way that eases its passage through parliament and goes full steam ahead for no deal, the question is then how far the anti-no deal faction will go to prevent it.
According to the Sunday Times at the weekend, as many as six Conservative MPs are due to hold talks with the Liberal Democrats with the aim of potentially derailing Johnson’s government to stop a no deal Brexit. Options include a vote of no confidence in Johnson or even the nuclear option of several Tory MPs defecting to the Liberal Democrats. This would be a disaster for the Conservative Party. Only two would need to switch to deny Johnson a parliamentary majority. It would further strengthen the resurgent Liberal Democrats who stand a good chance of taking seats from the Tories in the next election, especially if no deal is the key Tory policy.
Realistically, Johnson needs to try and gain a meaningful concession to amend the Withdrawal Agreement. He should then be able to win over some Tory rebels who will reconcile themselves to an orderly, managed Brexit. However, Johnson’s most enthusiastic supporters mostly hail from the hard-line Brexiteer wing of the Party. Most of them now appear to believe that the only real Brexit is a no deal Brexit and they have been promised that Johnson will pull us out of the EU on October 31st “do or die”. To succeed, he needs to convince enough of them to back his altered deal while also bringing more Labour MPs along with him. This is an unenviable challenge.
His best chance is to drop May’s failed strategy of shutting people out and running headfirst, eyes closed towards the goal. By holding meetings with a broad range of MPs, including from the opposition, and business leaders, he has a better chance of bringing people with him. Johnson should reiterate that his main aim is to get a deal and achieve a managed withdrawal from the European Union. He should appoint a Brexit Secretary and negotiating team that will have credibility and respect in Brussels. There should be no more threats and insults thrown to antagonise EU officials and national leaders. Dialling down the adversarial atmosphere is a better route to compromise.
Oh, and as a precursor to all this the new PM must reshuffle his Cabinet so that he is surrounded by loyal ministers who support his policy, though this risks filling the backbenches with defiant rebels. He is likely to face some serious and immediate decisions over the Iran crisis which is threatening to spin out of control. He must begin to set out his stall for a domestic agenda after May’s inertia. He knows much of it will be difficult to implement unless and until he wins and gains a stronger majority in an election. There is a plethora of long-term national problems in need of good policy solutions – from the housing crisis to social care. Johnson must also find a way to strike the right note to lead a divided country that desperately needs to heal and move forward.
A betting man would say the odds point towards probable failure. An inability to win enough support for a Brexit deal and resistance to no deal would likely lead to a very unpredictable election in which the Tories will be split on policy and could see defections. However, if Johnson can navigate his way through his first few months and win a majority in an election, even his doubters and detractors would begrudgingly owe him some respect.