Boris Johnson’s weakness brings international complications

Boris Johnson
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LONDON (AP) — When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote this week, at least one other world leader shared his relief.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was “great news” that “we have not lost a very important ally.”

It was a welcome boost for a British leader who divides his country, and his party, but has won wide praise as an ally of Ukraine.

Johnson’s relatively narrow victory in Monday’s Conservative Party vote — which left him in power but in danger of further rebellions — has implications beyond Britain’s shores.

“It’s quite hard to address whatever international challenges we face while you are battling your own political party,” said David Lawrence, a research fellow at international affairs think-tank Chatham House.

Johnson has many opponents in London and at European Union headquarters in Brussels, but he gets a warmer reception in Kyiv. His staunch backing for Ukraine’s fight against Russian invasion, backed by some 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) in U.K. military and humanitarian aid, has won him many fans. A bakery in Ukraine’s capital has even created a sweet treat named the “Boris Johnson”: a puff pastry cake topped with meringue and ice cream, vaguely reminiscent of the British leader’s blond mop.

Lawrence says Johnson’s rapport with Zelenskyy — “both quite big personalities” — has been an asset for both leaders. But experts say Johnson’s weakness is unlikely to have a serious impact on Britain’s backing for Ukraine.

Support for military aid to Kyiv and tough sanctions on Moscow is strong among both Britain’s governing Conservatives and the left-of-center Labour Party opposition.

“I think any British government would have done the same,” Lawrence said.

Johnson’s woes have more immediate repercussions for Britain’s relations with the EU. He won election in 2019 on a promise to “get Brexit done” and has since feuded with the bloc over trade rules for Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member.

A dispute over customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. has sparked a political crisis in Belfast that is destabilizing the delicate balance between Irish nationalist and British unionist communities that maintains Northern Ireland’s peace.

Britain and the EU each accuse the other of refusing to compromise. Now Johnson says he will act unilaterally — and, critics say, illegally — by passing a law to rip up part of the binding treaty he signed with the bloc.

The no-confidence vote has delayed that bill, which had been expected this week. Experts say the vote has reduced Johnson’s room to maneuver, because he can’t afford to anger either Brexit hard-liners or more pro-EU lawmakers in his party. It has also made the EU less willing to compromise, increasing the chances of a trade war between Britain and the bloc.

“The European Union increasingly thinks that Boris Johnson is too weak to be worth making concessions to,” said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think-tank. “(There’s) a sense on the EU side of ‘Why the hell would we make concessions now, because this guy might not be in charge for very long?’”

Brexit is central to Johnson’s foreign policy. He has long argued that leaving the EU gives the U.K. the chance to become a “Global Britain,” striking new trade deals and alliances around the world.

He has given U.K. foreign policy an “Indo-Pacific tilt” that seeks to strengthen economic, diplomatic and military ties with countries including India and Japan to counter the growing assertiveness of China. At the same time, however, his government has cut foreign aid and proposed shrinking the diplomatic service — moves Lawrence says are “completely contradictory to ‘Global Britain.’”

The no-confidence vote in Johnson was spurred by lockdown-breaching parties in government buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, attended by Johnson’s staff and in some cases the prime minister himself. The revelation that government officials partied while millions of Britons were barred from socializing with friends or even visiting dying family members caused anger in the country. It also crystallized some Conservatives’ concerns about a leader who often behaves as if rules don’t apply to him.

Under party rules, Johnson can’t face another challenge for a year. But 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him, and few believe he is safe in his job.

If Johnson is ousted, or quits, the party will elect a new leader, who will also become prime minister. Several potential contenders have strong track records on foreign affairs and might tweak the focus of U.K. international policy. Current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss champions a “network of liberty” involving capitalist democracies. Ex-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken of a “values based” foreign policy. Lawmaker Tom Tugendhat heads the House of Commons’ influential foreign affairs committee and is hawkish on China.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at political consultancy the Eurasia Group, says that fixing the U.K.’s broken relationship with Europe remains the key challenge, not least to help patch up a trans-Atlantic relationship strained by Brexit. President Joe Biden, who is strongly attached to his Irish roots, has expressed concern that Britain’s actions over EU trade could undermine peace in Northern Ireland.

“A lot hangs on the relationship with Europe,” Rahman said. “If you recalibrate the relationship with the EU, that will obviously facilitate the relationship with the Biden administration.”

The obstacle to that, he believes, is Boris Johnson.

“I think it’s a structural issue with this government and Johnson,” he said. “I can’t see the conditions for improvement until he is replaced.”