When Neville Chamberlain finally resigned from the prime ministership of the United Kingdom in 1940, his successor — Winston Churchill — inherited a world at war. When Theresa May — probably the worst prime minister since Chamberlain — resigned last week, her successor, Boris Johnson, inherited two crises, which, while not existential conflicts, will have enormous effects on the future of the UK.
The two simmering crises May left behind — the hijacking of a British-flagged oil tanker by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and Brexit, the UK’s extrication from the European Union — will require Johnson to display enormous political skill in resolving.
The global media has often characterized Johnson as a clown, hyperactive, disorganized, and shallow. All of which they say about Donald Trump. In neither case is the criticism correct.
Johnson is like Trump in several important ways and different in many others. Both like to speak their minds even if — and often with malice aforethought — they offend a great number of people. Both like to shake things up and go beyond establishment norms.
Johnson is not the political neophyte that Trump was at the beginning of his presidential campaign. Johnson is a veteran of Parliament, has been the mayor of London, and was foreign secretary for a time under Theresa May. His interest in history, the books he has written, and his apparent appetite for the written word aren’t shared with Trump.
Trump and Johnson both have enormous egos that could lead them to believe each is a reflection of the other. That could — and, we must hope, will — result in a more than superficial friendship. After May, the “special relationship” could use some restoration.
Mrs. May took her sweet time leaving. She should have resigned in January when her Brexit deal was first defeated in Parliament and on the second and third occasions when it was defeated. Instead, she hung on to power, negotiating repeated delays in the date Brexit would finally happen from March 29 to the current deadline of October 31.
Making matters worse, Parliament voted down every alternative for Brexit they could think of, including a no-deal Brexit and several permutations of her deal.
May had been a lame duck since her deal with the EU was first voted down in January. Parliament has rejected it twice more along with seemingly every good alternative, yet she clung to the remnants of power. In that enormously weakened condition, May took military action.
On July 4, May ordered the seizure by Brit forces of the Iranian Grace 1 oil tanker off Gibraltar. The seizure was accomplished because the ship was believed to be on the way to Syria and the EU has sanctions preventing oil deliveries to Assad.
The Grace 1 could not have been the first ship making the trip from Iran to Syria. Why take action at that moment, why that particular ship, and why was the UK — which has been trying to extricate itself from the EU for two years — alone in enforcing EU sanctions by military force?
May answered none of those questions. Nor did she order the protection of British ships in the Persian Gulf when, a few days after the Grace 1 was taken, the Iranians announced that their “authorities” had a duty to seize a British ship in retaliation.
There were no convoys of ships, no planned defenses except for the small frigate HMS Montrose — the only Brit warship then in the Gulf — to sail around the shipping lane. So, about two weeks later, when the Stena Impero was seized by the Iranians, Montrose was miles away, its commander on the radio left to harrumphing at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, asking whether they were really, really going to violate maritime law.
Given the paltry state of the UK’s armed forces — they spend the 2 percent required of NATO members, but apparently not productively — a UK military response to the Stena Impero hijacking is beyond the UK’s capability.
(A second Royal Navy ship reportedly arrived in the Persian Gulf yesterday. Perhaps Johnson has ordered British-flagged ships to travel in convoy so they can be protected.)
Even if a good military option were available, Johnson would be extremely unlikely to choose it because his slim parliamentary majority could easily break down over it and because the UK is still an EU member he would have to consult with the EU leaders (France and Germany), who will insist that he take no action.
(Angela Merkel’s Germany has already said it won’t cooperate with the U.S. “Operation Sentinel” plan to protect U.S. shipping, which, presumably, means Germany’s ships will sail without protection.)
Johnson has several choices. He could demand the EU impose greater sanctions on Iran. He could take the UK out of “Instex,” the under-the-table bartering mechanism that the UK, France, and Germany have cobbled together to evade U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran. He could even begin the political process of taking the UK out of the Obama-Iran nuclear deal to which it is a party.
President Trump would probably advise him to take all three of those actions, but Johnson will move cautiously.
Johnson has a big problem complicating his ability to deal with the tanker seizure: Johnson’s father has begun talking about what his son should do.
Boris’s father, Stanley Johnson, told an Iranian state-funded broadcaster (!) that his son has a different view of Iran than most because he has a “great sense of history.” Pappy Johnson advocated a swap: the exchange of the Iranian Grace 1 tanker for the Brit tanker Stena Impero. He said, “Well, I think the best thing would be to say, we let your ship go and you let our ship go. Easy peasy.”
With all due respect to Stanley Johnson (which isn’t much), he should shut the hell up and let Boris do his job.
What happens with the tanker crisis and Brexit will all depend on how tough Johnson is with the EU. At first glance, only days after his taking office, it certainly seems that he will take a very tough line with it.
Johnson is choosing his cabinet and packing it with smart, tough Brexiteers. He has announced firmly that unless the EU will negotiate changes to the deal Theresa May made, the UK will go out on October 31 without a deal.
One of the principal stumbling blocks is the so-called “Irish backstop.” The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a settlement of “the Troubles,” the Irish Republican Army-led campaign of terrorism and murder that wracked Northern Ireland for thirty years. One of its principal features requires that there never be a hard border between Northern Ireland — which is still part of the UK and wants to remain so — and the Irish Republic.
The Irish Republic is a member of the EU and has no plan to leave it. Under the “Irish backstop,” Northern Ireland would remain under EU laws and regulations until an agreement on border controls could be reached between the UK and the Irish Republic. Unless the UK is broken up — which would please the EU greatly — keeping one part of it under EU control means the entirety of it is.
Johnson rightly rejects the “backstop” and insists it be removed from the UK-EU deal. He has told Parliament that the backstop is divisive and anti-democratic. He said, “No country that values its independence, and indeed its self-respect, could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, insists that the backstop remain in the deal and that the May-negotiated deal is the best one possible. In short, the EU seems to want to force Johnson into a no-deal Brexit or to remain in the EU. Some of the EU leaders have indicated that the October 31 deadline could be extended yet again, a major defeat for Johnson.
Johnson knows that his Conservative Party has been greatly weakened by its continued failure to deliver Brexit. It’s entirely possible that if Johnson doesn’t deliver Brexit on October 31, it could bring about the demise of the party and the election of another prime minister, even Labor Party leader and quasi-communist Jeremy Corbyn.
Because Theresa May hung on for so long, Johnson has only 94 days to deliver Brexit with or without a deal with the EU.
Those 94 days will be fraught with political danger and frantic for Johnson. I’m betting he will deliver Brexit one way or the other and will find a good way out of the tanker crisis. If he does both, he will go down in history as the UK’s greatest prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.