July 25, 2019
AFP/File / Tolga AKMEN | The former London mayor swept out more than half the ministers who served Theresa May.
Britain’s newly installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs his first cabinet meeting Thursday as he tries to unite the deeply polarised nation in a last big push out of EU.
The former London mayor took office Wednesday and swept out more than half the ministers who served under his Conservative predecessor Theresa May in the turbulent closing months of her premiership.
The shakeup was one of the biggest in decades and saw some papers accuse Britain’s new leader of exacting revenge on his doubters and supporters of past policies.
“The night of the blond knives,” declared The Daily Telegraph.
The Times called it an “afternoon of cabinet carnage”.
Johnson, 55, appointed former Deutsche Bank trader Sajid Javid as finance minister and Brexit hardliner Dominic Raab as foreign secretary.
He also named Jacob Rees-Mogg — leader of an arch-Brexiteer faction of Conservatives who were partially responsible for May’s ultimate decision to resign — as the government’s representative in parliament’s lower House of Commons.
Johnson installed other loyalists in place of cabinet members who backed May’s efforts to ram through an unpopular European divorce deal.
The Labour opposition-backing Mirror newspaper called it “Britain’s most right-wing government since the 1980s” rule of the late Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson delivered a characteristically optimistic speech Wednesday in which he vowed to steer Britain out of the EU on October 31 “no ifs or buts”.
It is a big promise that could backfire and spell a premature end to Johnson’s lifelong dream of leading Britain — an ambition that seemed doomed when he quit as foreign minister last year.
– ‘Not in the real world’ –
Johnson argues that his threat of a chaotic “no-deal” divorce will force EU leaders to relent and give Britain better terms that would let it pursue trade deals with powers like China and the United States.
Brexit backers in parliament had accused May of ignoring voters’ wishes by promising to keep the UK closely tied to EU economic rules if necessary to preserve a free-flowing border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s solution for the frontier revolves around proposals that have been repeatedly rejected as either unworkable or insufficient by both EU and Irish leaders.
“I look forward to meeting you to discuss — in detail — our cooperation,” European Council president Donald Tusk told Johnson in a brief note.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar — his heavily trade-dependent nation standing to lose most from a messy EU-UK split — was even more blunt.
“Any suggestion that there can be a whole new deal and negotiated in weeks or months is totally not in the real world,” he said.
Johnson was expected to start addressing some of those issues when he addresses parliament on Thursday.
– Diplomatic dilemmas –
Johnson will have the backing of his governing Conservative party but not the nation in his first days in office.
He beat the now-former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt by a two-to-one margin in a vote held by fewer than 160,000 paying members of the Conservatives.
But a YouGov survey Wednesday found his approval rating in Britain as a whole at just 31 percent.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn challenged Johnson to call an election that could offer him the mandate of the nation.
Johnson has signalled his preference not to hold one before he can deliver Brexit.
Even his biggest critics in London and Brussels have been willing to give Johnson a chance to try his own luck at resolving the Brexit mess.
But his problems further abroad are more immediate — and just as challenging.
Iran’s seizure last Friday of a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf thrusts Johnson in the middle of the Islamic republic’s escalating standoff with US President Donald Trump.
And Trump’s bid to contain China’s global clout has forced Britain into an uncomfortable choice over what technology to use in its now-delayed rollout of the next-generation 5G data network.
Johnson boasts a friendship with Trump that his doubters fear will make Britain beholden to the mercurial White House chief’s unpredictable foreign policies.
His supporters counter that good relations with Trump will help the prospects of an early trade deal with the US after Brexit.