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COMMENTARY

Why Boris's first 100 days could be 'nail biter'

BORIS Johnson and Jeremy Hunt went head-to-head in their first debate on Tuesday night in their battle to become the UK's next prime minister. With polls indicating that Mr Johnson could win by a landslide among Conservative members, the irony is that his hold on power may be extremely fragile.

Indeed, there is a scenario in which, even if Mr Johnson wins the Conservative leadership race handsomely on July 23, he never gets into Downing Street.

With the Tories lacking a majority in the House of Commons (and having a majority of only three with their Democratic Unionist Party "supply and confidence" partner), the potential danger for Mr Johnson is that some of his colleagues have threatened a vote of no-confidence if he seeks to deliver a 'no-deal' exit from the EU.

With this parliamentary arithmetic, and party loyalties strained by Brexit, it is not guaranteed therefore that Mr Johnson could command the confidence of the Commons. And this point was reinforced on Sunday by the opposition Labour Party's acknowledgement that it is in talks with Conservative Party MPs - estimated by former Tory minister Sam Gyimah as "30 plus" - who might support such a no-confidence motion.

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The worst-case scenario for Mr Johnson would unfold if a sizeable group of Tory MPs declare their withdrawal of support as soon as (if not before) his anticipated victory is announced. This would pose constitutional and political challenges for the Queen and those advising her. For if the Queen decided to move ahead with Mr Johnson's appointment, he could face an immediate confidence vote.

However, in the more likely event that Conservative MPs give Mr Johnson the 'benefit of the doubt' for a limited period, this question could come back to the boil in September when the Commons returns. Or sooner if there is a summer recall of the legislature.

If a no-confidence vote is approved, unless a new government can be formed within two weeks, there would be a general election. The last date that such a ballot could be triggered to ensure an election before Oct 31 - the current date for the UK's departure from the EU - is the first week of September. This is because, in addition to the 14 days period to try to form a new government, five clear weeks would then be needed for the campaign.

HARDENING ATTITUDES

And at the same time that UK political dynamics are increasing the odds of a "no-deal", attitudes are also hardening in the EU-27. At the June 20-21 EU summit in Brussels, this was underlined by Irish leader Leo Varadkar's assertion that "my European colleagues have lost patience, quite frankly, with the United Kingdom and there's enormous hostility to any further extension. What won't be entertained is an extension for further negotiations or indicative votes. The time for that is long gone".

The period from end of July to end of October will therefore be a potentially nail-biting first 100 days for the new premier. With a precarious Commons majority, he must seek to form an elusive national consensus amid the sea of debate and division within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about leaving the EU.

Key here has been the huge and important debate across the United Kingdom about what the meaning of the 2016 referendum result was. Mr Johnson has made clear his strong view that sovereignty and 'taking back control' were the primary drivers behind the victory, and therefore appears relaxed about a full break from the EU and a "no-deal" outcome.

However, there were - in fact - diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year, let alone the 48 per cent who voted Remain. Contrary to what many Brexiteers such as Mr Johnson now insist, the referendum therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments, and there was (and still is) not a consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft.

In this context, one of the factors that has become clearer since the referendum is how Brexit is driving clearer positioning, and potentially even significant new electoral cleavages, by the UK's main political parties - those with representation in England, Scotland and Wales. On one pole, the ruling Conservatives appear now to be unifying around a hard-line Brexit stance, albeit with the significant possibility of more 'Remainer' Tory MPs leaving the party.

The other major party with a pro-Leave message is Nigel Farage's Brexit Party which topped the polls in May's European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom. Yet, its support could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives if Mr Johnson does lead the nation to a no-deal.

Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to continue to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against all the main UK parties, and led it in May to make significant advances in the local Council elections, and European Parliament ballots.

It is Labour that potentially still has the biggest positioning challenge of all the parties given that the party's MPs represent both the top 20 Leave voting constituencies, and the 20 Remain constituencies, from the 2016 referendum. To be sure, much of the party faithful remains instinctively pro-EU, and some 65 per cent of Labour voters are believed to have backed Remain last in 2016.

BIG IMPACT

However, the stance of the party's parliamentary leadership was ultimately in 2017 to vote to trigger Article 50 given the referendum result and potential risks of losing support in many of its heartland seats, especially in England, if Labour was perceived to thwart the democratic will of the populace. Hence the reason why the party's MPs, by and large to date, have turned their energies not to opposing Brexit, but more to trying to soften the terms of any final deal with the EU.

Taken overall, Brexit has already had a big impact on UK domestic politics and this may only grow if Mr Johnson leads the nation to a "no-deal" outcome in October. Indeed, this issue could yet prove the defining battleground in the next general election, and may continue to frame the nation's politics well into the 2020s.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics