Boris Johnson’s wish to fight with his former enemies risks making the UK a pariah
Two days later, the EU reacted by launching legal action against the UK for its failure to implement parts of the protocol to date, while Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission, stated that “there is no legal or political justification whatsoever for unilaterally altering an international agreement…let’s call a spade a spade: it’s illegal.”
The program had been widely criticized by human rights organizations, which succeeded in numerous legal challenges against individual deportations but failed in their application for an injunction suspending the flight. However, when the ECHR intervened on Tuesday evening, saying the last asylum seekers due to be on board had not exhausted their legal options in the UK, the plane was grounded.
Johnson’s willingness to have public feuds with major international institutions makes sense when you look at recent history. Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, battled with the judiciary and the EU through the most frustrating days of Brexit. This, the Tory theory goes, gave both leaders a boost among their core supporters for attacking elitist bodies that were blocking the will of the people.
“Historically, Boris has done well in hitting big institutions like the EU and the courts,” a former government minister told CNN. “These were no contrived fights, Rwanda and Northern Ireland are proper government policy. But the tough way we defended them suggests to me that Boris sees a silver lining,” they added.
In a way, this logic makes sense. Johnson has been hit with scandal after scandal and seen his tank of personal approval ratings, as well as national polls for his Conservative party.
He had to fend off a vote within his own party to remove him as leader and saw his own ethics counselor Christopher Geidt resign on Thursday night, saying Johnson’s government had put him in an “impossible position and hateful”.
So a fight with the high elites of Brussels and Strasbourg on real conservative red meat issues like Brexit and immigration could be just what Johnson needs to get things back on track.
However, whenever a government becomes so obsessed with domestic politics, it risks forgetting that allies and enemies around the world are paying attention.
CNN spoke to several Western diplomatic sources who said Johnson’s government had cast a shadow over their perception of the UK. A senior Western official who worked closely with the UK during the Ukraine crisis said that although the allies are still coordinating with the UK, the feeling of concern that they do not know which version of Johnson they will get normalized.
“He’s not Donald Trump, but he’s so unpredictable that it’s easy for allies to think he looks like Donald Trump,” a Western diplomat said.
A European diplomat told CNN that “it is difficult to overstate how much damage has been done. Trust has been extremely damaged.” They highlighted the Northern Ireland problem, saying that “on our side we know there are solutions to protocol. But those solutions are built on trust. Why should we trust him not to tear a new agreement in the future?
Western officials say, with some sadness, that there were times immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when they thought Johnson might begin to behave as a “stable and predictable” leader, as said the Western diplomat.
A European official agreed, saying that “there were times when we looked at the UK with some admiration and thought there might be a way forward. Ukraine was something more greater than our quarrels”.
Westminster Tories have mixed views on the seriousness of it all. Some fear Johnson’s continued scandals and rhetoric are turning the UK into a pariah. Worse still, they fear that a country like the United Kingdom – a long-time member of the rules-based international order – toying so quickly and freely with international law will set a terrible precedent at a time when democracy is threatened in many parts of the world.
On the other hand, some MPs think Johnson’s critics are getting upset about something normal people don’t care about. They say, not without reason, that a G7, NATO member with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – and which in many ways paved the way for Ukraine – is not on about to be ousted by his allies.
Ultimately, Johnson’s international feuds are more likely to play out in the domestic political arena. Some will like him to take a tough stance. Others will feel a growing sense of embarrassment that this man is their prime minister.
“If you’re in Boris’s position, then might as well double down on some of this stuff. What’s he got to lose?” a senior Conservative MP told CNN. “Either things are so bad that he’s doomed no matter what, or he has two years to turn things around before the election. So why not go out there and fight on your own turf?”
This summary makes a lot of sense when you’re sitting in Westminster talking to people who spend too much time in Westminster. However, Johnson’s decisions are having a serious impact on the lives of people who don’t spend time in Westminster and for whom it really is no game. Especially as the UK is going through the worst cost crisis of the life he has known for decades.
Johnson won’t know if his bet on red meat has paid off with the public until the next general election – unless he’s removed from office before then. Undeniably there will be people who see him as the same Brexit street fighter defending Britain against bullies looking to bring it down.
But there will be an awful lot of people who think that instead of fighting with the EU and the ECHR, Johnson should think about ways to improve their lives.