It’s common to talk about a new government’s first 100 days. But newly-anointed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has exactly 97 days to display his negotiating skills and show he’s willing to steer Britain away from the precipice of a no-deal Brexit. Britain’s due to part ways with the European Union on October 31. Johnson’s insisted he’ll leave without a deal regardless of consequences. Such a parting would damage not only Britain, it would hurt the EU and, indeed, the world economy at a particularly fragile time. Furthermore, Johnson is a divisive figure. One columnist in the right-wing Spectator magazine, which Johnson once edited, extravagantly predicted that his ex-boss would be the world’s most popular prime minister. The left-wing Guardian blasted away at the man it views as supremely unqualified, saying: “The UK’s now at its most combustible. And now it’s led by a man who plays with matches.” Johnson’s cultivated an amiable-buffoon reputation but that has concealed vaulting ambition, a blatant disregard for the truth and terrifying temper tantrums.
The fact is, Johnson faces a Herculean task. For a start, the 97-day deadline is in reality far less. The British Parliament will sit for 30 days between now and end-October. The EU too will be vacationing and, anyway, its officials have ruled out changes to the separation agreement it negotiated with outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, an agreement Johnson wants to tear up. And, even in the unlikely event Johnson persuades the EU to change the accord, there’s no guarantee he would be able to get it through Parliament where his Conservatives now hold a two-seat majority. Then, there’s the Irish Backstop issue which has been impossible to resolve. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement mandated open borders between the Irish Republic and the UK’s Northern Ireland province. But the EU must have border controls with countries outside its free-trade zone. Johnson has talked airily about technological solutions but the truth is there aren’t any.
It’s likely Johnson will be forced to call an election soon if he can’t achieve a workable Brexit. Then, all bets are off. In recent European Parliament elections, Conservatives came fourth behind Labour, the Liberals and even the Brexit Party led by populist Nigel Farage. Johnson’s partly got his job because Conservative Party members feel he’s the only leader with enough charisma to out-charm Farage. As public opinion swings more against Brexit, many Labour members want a second referendum but party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexit supporter despite job losses and firms relocating to mainland Europe. The reality is Britain is so divided any outcome will displease a large chunk of the population. Whichever way Johnson swings on Brexit, it is increasingly apparent that everyone will end up on the losing side. It is time for tough pragmatism, utmost wisdom and that increasingly rare attribute, statesmanship, from UK’s new leader. It’s a moot question whether Johnson can summon up all these qualities.