The new government has no fewer than five officials appointed to implement the Brexit. And no one — including them — knows how they’re going to do it.
The prime minister who took power because of the Brexit just formed a cabinet shaped by the Brexit — but it’s not at all clear how that new government will actually manage the Brexit.
The appointments by newly minted British Prime Minister Theresa May came quickly and in succession Wednesday. Brexit opponent George Osborne is out as British treasury secretary, replaced by fellow opponent Philip Hammond, who left his job as foreign secretary. Hammond is being replaced by Boris Johnson, the flamboyant and controversial former mayor of London who championed the pro-Brexit movement.
Two new positions have been created to deal with the logistics of the Brexit. David Davis, a Euroskeptic conservative who campaigned to leave, was named secretary of state for exiting the European Union — the so-called Brexit minister — created to guide the process to show the U.K. out of the EU. Liam Fox, another veteran of the Euroskeptic right, was appointed to the new role of international trade minister, charged with delivering the improved trade deals pro-exit campaigners promised the U.K. could get if it left the EU. He’s also pro-Brexit.
In other words, five people — the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, both anti-Brexit, and the foreign secretary, Brexit minister, and international trade minister, all pro-Brexit — are now charged with seeing Britain out of the European Union, which means they have to come to terms with 27 other nations on issues ranging from exports to migration to marriage privileges. It’s already shaping up as a messy and chaotic divorce.
The prime minister has said that she would not soon invoke Article 50, which would officially begin the process of formally removing Britain from the EU, before 2017 and that talks with Brussels should not be launched before the end of year. She said Britain needs time to develop its negotiating strategy. European leaders want May to get on with the Brexit, and have said no talks would start before London officially moves to leave.
British officials want the U.K. to have access to the European common market, a notion powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected. She said there would be no “cherry picking” of what London wants to keep from its EU membership while jettisoning the aspects of the relationship it dislikes, such as policies allowing EU citizens to have passport-free travel to the U.K. Hammond has said talks between London and Brussels could take six years, four years longer than allowed by Article 50.
The truth is no one knows what will happen next simply because a nation has never left the European Union, said Nicolas Véron, a French economist and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“A lot of things will happen in six months,” he told Foreign Policy on Wednesday, referring to May’s refusal to invoke Article 50 before 2017. “We don’t know what, but six months is a lot of time for unexpected things to happen in politics.”
One immediate reaction was clear: shock that Johnson has become the new face of British diplomacy. The former mayor of London is known for getting stuck on a zip line and knocking over a Japanese child while playing rugby, as well as for odd statements about drugs and food.
“It’s difficult to really make sense of the choices, especially Boris Johnson,” said Véron, who characterized the picks, and how they were made public, as chaotic. “The less chaotic choice is Hammond as chancellor. I struggle to make sense of the Johnson appointment in particular.” He added that he wasn’t familiar with either Davis or Fox.
Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe expert at the Eurasia Group, told FP the makeup of the cabinet is a reflection of British politics more than it is an effort to put together a team that can deal with Europe; it’s slightly favored in the pro-Brexit camp, just as the referendum was. He added, “Boris Johnson in particular is a serious risk, given his role in the Leave campaign and subsequent withdrawal from the premiership.”
That’s because Johnson has, at best, a spotty reputation as a British diplomat. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, he compared Winston Churchill’s fight against totalitarian regimes in World War II with Britain’s efforts to leave a “federal superstate” and blasted President Barack Obama for his anti-Brexit stance.
“Some said it was a snub to Britain,” Johnson wrote in an April op-ed in the Sun newspaper regarding Obama’s anti-Brexit comments. “Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
Johnson has also praised Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protecting Palmyra from the Islamic State. Then, in May, he was awarded 1,000 pounds, or $1,314, in a British magazine contest on who could write the most offensive poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It reads:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.
A 2015 trip to Iraq by Johnson has also proven controversial. Documents released by the Foreign Office in January 2016 showed it had to pick up a bar tab run up by Johnson, block his planned trip to the front line of the war against the Islamic State, and stop him from driving a sports car out of an Iraqi showroom.
Even May has been critical of Johnson’s ability as a statesman. Speaking in late June, before Johnson announced he would not be running for prime minister, she said: “Boris negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember [the] last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon[s],” referring to anti-riot weapons Johnson secured as London’s mayor.
When asked about Johnson’s appointment Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at Wednesday’s press briefing, “We’re always going to be able to work with the British, no matter who is occupying the role of foreign secretary because of our deep abiding special relationship with the United Kingdom.” He added the relationship between London and Washington “goes beyond personalities.”
The other officials named Wednesday all face daunting challenges. Hammond, who has vast experience dealing with European leaders like Merkel and French President François Hollande, must navigate the U.K. through what nearly three-thirds of economists recently surveyed by Bloomberg predict to be a looming recession due to the Brexit. He must also deal with a pound sterling hovering around 31-year lows against the dollar. Britons have seen the value of their currency drop as 1.32 pounds equal one dollar. On June 23, the day of the referendum, one pound was worth $1.49.
In addition, capital has been fleeing the country in the wake of the Brexit. Last week, M&G Investments suspended a 4.4 billion-pound ($5.7 billion) real-estate fund there, following in the footsteps of Aviva Investors and Standard Life Investments after a number of investors pulled out of their funds.
There are also concerns that large banks could relocate their European headquarters from London’s famed City to countries that remain part of the European Union. Véron told FP recently that regulatory uncertainty about doing business in Europe from London could lead multinational banks like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs to shift their operations to other countries; both donated to the “Britain Stronger in Europe” campaign. He suggested the Netherlands, which has a banking history dating back to the 17th century. Paris has also been floated as a possibility.
Finally, Hammond, along with Fox, will have to repair the trade relationship between London and Washington. Obama has said that Britain would move to the back of the line when it comes to negotiating a U.K./U.S. trade deal, as opposed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the entirety of the EU.
By David Francis