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‘Come What May’: Boris Johnson’s Brexit Challenge

‘Come What May’:  Boris Johnson’s Brexit Challenge

Giulia Gentile  (King’s College London)

Boris Johnson has won the leadership of the Conservative Party and is set to become the next Prime Minister of the UK.

Since the 23rd of June 2016, UK politics have been dominated by the instability and uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Following the conclusion of the EU-UK negotiations in November 2018, the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected three times by the UK Parliament making use of its powers under Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. Consequently, both the UK and the EU have agreed to extend the Article 50 period and thereby postpone the Brexit date, which is currently set to occur on the 31st of October 2019, 7 months later than the original date of the 29th of March 2019.

To further complicate the picture, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation on the 24thof May, after acknowledging the impossibility of reaching a majority in the Parliament for the approval of the Withdrawal Agreement. Thus began the race to replace her as leader of the Tory Party and UK Prime Minister. Two months later, Boris Johnson, former columnist at the Spectator and mayor of London, has won the leadership competition and is set to become Prime Minister. This post discusses the procedure to identify the new UK Prime Minister as well as the Brexit plans shared so far by Boris Johnson as prospective Prime Minister.

The Conservative party election procedure: Who has elected the new Prime Minister?

The current system of electing the Leader of the Conservative Party, determined by the Executive of the 1922 Committee in consultation with the Conservative Party Board, consists of two stages:

(a)  Conservative Members of Parliament select a choice of two candidates to present to the membership of the whole Party;

(b)  Party members vote, on a ‘one member one vote’ basis, for their preferred candidate from a shortlist of two.

According to a recent Tweet of the Chairman of the Party, the Conservatives count on 180,000 members as of July 2019, corresponding to roughly 0.3 % of the entire UK population. However, data on political membership are obscure and hard to gather, as parties are under no legal obligation to publish membership statistics. Despite the fact that they are required to submit these annual accounts, political parties are not obliged to include membership data.

Between 13-20 June 2019, 5 ballots were held in the Conservative parliamentary party in the first stage of the leadership election process, which identified Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt as the two finalists. During the second phase, when campaigning for the support of the membership at large, Johnson did not miss opportunities to express his views on a series of policy matters, including his preferences for Brexit.

With or without a deal

Over the course of the Conservative leadership race, media and research institutes have reported that Boris Johnson has threatened to withhold  the EU-UK financial settlement and that he has no intention to request an extension under Article 50 TEU in case of a no-deal scenario. He has refused to rule out the option to prorogue the Parliament to ensure that Brexit happens on the 31st of October, with or without a deal. Such unfaltering views come as a reaction of the more balanced approach followed by his predecessor Theresa May, and signal sympathy towards the political style of Trump, whose diplomatic skills may be questioned. More importantly, the views of Boris Johnson disregard the copious evidence concerning the negative impact of Brexit for the UK economy and its relationship with the EU bloc, and raise a number of issues.

In particular, Johnson’s  stance towards the financial settlement runs counter the terms set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, where it was acknowledged both by the EU and the UK that financial commitments undertaken under the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework had to be honoured. Such commitments include UK contributions to the EU annual and long-term budget but also, among others, EU funds to UK entities (e.g. EU SMEs funding projects in the UK). Withholding payment of the UK commitments to the EU budget ultimately carries risks as to the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Whether the UK respects its financial commitments with the EU might influence potential future trade talks with the European bloc.

In parallel, the EU has been preparing to facilitate the payment of reciprocal financial commitments with the UK in case of no-deal. On the 9th of July 2019 the Council of the European Union adopted contingency measures that would enable the EU to continue making payments to UK beneficiaries for contracts signed and decisions made before the withdrawal date, as long as the UK continues paying its contribution agreed in the EU budget for 2019. Such measures would enter into force on the day in which EU law ceases to apply in the UK. In a press release of the Council, mention was made that a no-deal Brexit would not change the principle that both the EU and the UK should respect the financial obligations resulting from the whole period of the UK’s membership in the EU. Both the adoption of contingency measures and the Council press release seem to further confirm the likelihood of legal actions in relation to the settlement of the outstanding financial obligations between the EU and the UK. It remains to be seen how the future PM Johnson will deal with this matter.

On the other side of la Manche, the newly elected Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has stated that Brexit is a loss and has indicated she is open to a further delay. If Johnson keeps his word and does not request a further extension under Article 50 TEU, this would put the EU and the UK in a no-deal scenario if the UK Parliament does not approve the current Withdrawal Agreement. In this respect, a matter of concern from a democratic perspective is the prorogation procedure, which has not been ruled out by Johnson. It would entail a suspension of the UK Parliament, meaning that Parliament activities, including legislative ones, would be interrupted. The prorogation process would be triggered by the Queen on the basis of the advice of the Prime Minister, and could be strategically initiated to effectively suspend Parliament to prevent it from stopping a no-deal Brexit, which will otherwise occur by default on the 31st of October. Such a scenario would nevertheless entail a serious constitutional crisis for the UK, whose consequences may include, among other things, a no-confidence vote against the Government. This is even more likely since the Johnson ‘do or die’ attitude towards no-deal Brexit is in sharp contrast with the votes expressed by the majority of UK MPs, who have consistently expressed their willingness to avoid a no-deal exit from the EU. Even before winning, Johnson faced resistance within his own party, as some members of the Government presented their resignations, and former PM John Major announced his intention to trigger judicial review if the prorogation procedure were initiated.


In a recent speech, Theresa May highlighted a tendency towards ‘uncompromising absolutism’ in UK politics in recent times. According to May, such approach would be liable to open the gates for authoritarianism and populism in one of the most ancient democracies in the world. The previous track record of Boris Johnson does not shine with measurement and balance, the so-called ‘metriotes’ of Greek philosphy. How the months to come will develop and how Brexit will unfold remain to be seen. ‘Come what may…’


Giulia Gentile is Visiting Lecturer at the Centre of European Law, King’s College London, and Ph.D. candidate at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.