To beat scandals, Boris Johnson doubles down on Brexit

American Age Official

It had fallen off the news radar, crowded out by a damning drumbeat of headlines about eating, drinking, and dancing in Downing Street while the rest of Britain struggled under lockdown.

But Brexit is back.

Britain’s withdrawal from its decadeslong membership in the European Union – the issue on which Mr. Johnson rode to the top job – is taking on new relevance. And, for the increasingly embattled prime minister, new urgency.

Brexit is Mr. Johnson’s defining achievement. Deepening its impact and widening its supposed benefits are key to ensuring continued personal support from fellow Brexiteers in the ruling Conservative Party. And as calls mount for his resignation over “partygate,” he needs every vote he can get.

Yet there’s also a longer-term reason for the renewed focus on Brexit, because how the process pans out will determine more than just the future political and economic shape of Britain.

Depending on its course, it could serve either as a shining example or a cautionary tale for populist politicians elsewhere in Europe who, like Mr. Johnson, have held out the promise of reasserting their countries’ ethnic and national identity by pushing back against existing international alliances and institutions.

Countries like Poland and Hungary, and right-wing opposition politicians in France, Germany, Italy and other European countries.

That’s because Brexit was never simply about Britain’s trade relationship with the EU.

It was a political vision, for which Mr. Johnson was the ebullient chief spokesman, combining echoes of Britain’s imperial past with what he portrayed as new opportunities for the 21st century.

“Unshackling” itself from the EU would allow Britain to “control its borders” – shorthand not just for ending the visa-free access that had brought in workers from other EU states, but curbing immigration more broadly. It would let Britain create a lower-tax, lower-tariff economy, and open the way for lucrative new trade deals, above all with America.

Brexit would create a new “global Britain,” more respected and influential on the world stage.

All of that, however, still hangs in the balance.

A year on from the entry into force of the exit terms, the scant evidence that Mr. Johnson has made good on this Brexit vision has left even supporters frustrated.

Last month, Mr. Johnson’s Brexit minister resigned, unhappy at the pace of travel. And a recent poll found that among voters who had backed Brexit and expected it to go well, only 17% believe now that it has turned out like that.

Little wonder, then, that Mr. Johnson pledged this week to “go ever faster,” unveiling plans for a “Brexit Freedoms Bill” aimed at streamlining the process of removing EU-influenced regulations from Britain’s statute book.

His vision of Britain’s revitalized “global power” was also on show, in response to the Ukraine crisis. He signed off on further military deployments to the region, and declared that Britain was “leading” efforts to forge a united Western response.

Ahead of a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, his office also revealed he would be speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, though that call – embarrassingly – had to be rescheduled on Monday because Mr. Johnson was in Parliament, under heavy fire from both government and opposition benches over the “partygate” allegations.

Still, the main problem for Mr. Johnson – or his successor, if he ends up being replaced – is that making the vision of Brexit a success is proving harder than its supporters had hoped.

They had always acknowledged that some short-term economic difficulties were to be expected. But much of the reduction in British-European trade seems likely to last and the potential game-changer – a deal with the U.S. – remains a distant prospect.

Britain’s independent Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that in the long term, Brexit will cut 4% from British GDP.

The promise of fewer immigrants has also run into difficulty. When businesses faced production problems because the flow of workers from the EU had dried up, the government had to selectively ease restrictions. And Brexit has done nothing to stop record numbers of asylum-seekers from making the perilous trip across the English Channel in hopes of reaching British soil.

What of the dreams of a new, boldly independent geopolitical role for London? Britain does retain influence through its permanent U.N. Security Council seat, its place in the G-7 group of advanced economies, and its membership in NATO. Alongside France, Britain is the only serious European military power, something which has indeed given it considerable weight in U.S. moves to ensure a strong allied response on Ukraine.

But post-Brexit, Britain now has to compete for attention in Washington and other world capitals with the European Union.

Over time, Brexit’s advantages may indeed come to outstrip is challenges. But its short-term difficulties seem to have soured populist politicians on the European continent on the idea of leaving the EU.

Whether “exit” rebounds as a populist cause will hinge on whether Brexit itself can do so.

Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, doesn’t have the luxury of time. His top priority is to remind his party that, in the words of the slogan he parlayed into election victory in 2019, he “got Brexit done.”

Now, facing potentially career-ending scandals, he depends more than ever on support from Brexit loyalists if he is to save his political life. He will get it only if he can put the partying behind him, and walk the straight and narrow path of Brexit.

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