Boris Johnson Says UK Should Not Fear No-Deal Brexit

Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves from the steps outside 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

(CN) – Boris Johnson, standing in front of No. 10 Downing Street, delivered his first speech as the British prime minister on Wednesday, pushing a go-it-alone approach for the United Kingdom and urging his country to not fear leaving the European Union without a deal.

Johnson’s speech, delivered with his posh accent and accompanied by his now-familiar abrupt gesturing, came during an eventful day in London and marked the beginning of what may be one of Britain’s most unpredictable governments in recent memory.

In the early afternoon, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May turned in an emotional performance during her last Prime Minister’s Question Time – on Wednesdays, a U.K. prime minister is grilled in the House of Commons – and then tendered her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. After that, it was Johnson’s turn to get the queen’s blessing to form another government.

On his way to Buckingham Palace, Johnson’s motorcade was halted by Greenpeace activists. Protesters later provided a backdrop of jeers and shouts as Johnson made his first speech in front of Downing Street.

Johnson, who has reached the apex of power after a life of privilege and outrageous conduct, is compared to U.S. President Donald Trump for his willingness to embrace a nationalist agenda favored by the far right.

On Tuesday, after Johnson was elected the leader of the Tory party, Trump praised him and said he is being called “Britain Trump.”

The new prime minister’s speech echoed – albeit on a minor key – the kind of nationalist themes now a familiar part of Trump’s script. Johnson has pledged to take Britain out of the EU “with or without a deal” by Oct. 31, a deadline the EU set for Britain to make up its mind.

Economists and political analysts warn that leaving the EU without a deal could cause major economic and political damage to the U.K. and Europe. Nonetheless, hardcore right-wing sections of British society, including many on the nationalist far right, are ready for that leap and Johnson has become their chief exponent.

“Everyone knows the values that flag represents,” Johnson said, referring to the Union Jack. “It stands for freedom and free speech and habeas corpus and the rule of law, and above all it stands for democracy.”

He then added: “And that is why we will come out of the EU on Oct. 31. Because in the end, Brexit was a fundamental decision by the British people that they wanted their laws made by people that they can elect and they can remove from office.”

Fundamentally, Johnson is the prime minister that a pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative Party has rallied behind in order to see if he can force Britain out of the EU. The British public is split over whether to leave or not.

For now, Johnson is vowing to do what many see as the impossible: Strike a new deal with the EU that suits the hardcore Brexit faction of the Tory party by the October deadline, which is only 99 days away.

May’s government spent three years negotiating a voluminous withdrawal deal with the EU, but a deeply fractured House of Commons rejected that deal three times. Parliament has also rejected leaving the EU without a deal, and this means it may be highly likely that Johnson’s promise to exit the EU on Oct. 31 will fail.

Johnson spent more time in his speech imaging a future Britain sailing off on its own outside of the EU.

“To all those who continue to prophesy disaster, I say yes – there will be difficulties, though I believe that with energy and application they will be far less serious than some have claimed,” Johnson said about leaving the EU without a deal.

He charged that the confidence of business had been sapped over the past three years of negotiations because of “our refusal to take decisions.” This appeared to be an allusion to what he considers the failings of May’s approach of seeking compromises with the EU.

“And to all those who say we cannot be ready, I say do not underestimate this country,” he said, referring to preparations for a no-deal exit from the EU. “Do not underestimate our powers of organization and our determination, because we know the enormous strengths of this economy in life sciences, in tech, in academia, in music, the arts, culture, financial services.”

He said Britain must be “fully determined at last to take advantage of Brexit” and he said his government would prepare for its exit from the EU “with high hearts and growing confidence.”

He added: “The ports will be ready and the banks will be ready, and the factories will be ready, and business will be ready, and the hospitals will be ready, and our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling ever more, not just here but around the world.”

As “extra lubrication,” he said leaving the EU without a deal would free up $49 billion that, as stipulated under May’s deal, would have gone to the EU to pay outstanding contributions the U.K. owes the bloc. Johnson said he would use that money “to boost British business.”

He painted a rosy future for a Britain outside of the EU.

“As we prepare for a post-Brexit future, it is time we looked not at the risks but at the opportunities that are upon us,” he said.

He envisioned Britain as an economic engine with “free ports” open to global trade, a new tax regime that would lure investment, a “liberated” bioscience sector capable of leading in “blight-resistant crops that will feed the world” and Britain developing its “own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems – U.K. assets orbiting in space.”

He began and ended his speech saying he would prove “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” wrong.

“All this and more we can do now and only now, at this extraordinary moment in our history,” he said in ending his speech. “And after three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record. To recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world. No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country. They will not succeed today.”

Johnson’s soaring rhetoric, though, will meet reality in the coming weeks.

He faces a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, although that chamber begins a six-week summer recess this week. He also will have to quell deep divisions inside his party and across the nation.

On Wednesday, he also formed his Cabinet after many of May’s Cabinet members resigned or were sacked. He was picking a pro-Brexit team and surrounding himself with some controversial figures, such as Dominic Cummings as a chief adviser.

Cummings led the campaign advocating leaving the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum. He was accused of employing misleading claims in pro-Brexit campaign advertising, most famously posters claiming Turkey and its millions of Muslims were about to enter the EU bloc. That was not true. Earlier this year he was found in contempt of the House of Commons for refusing to testify about his work during the campaign.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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