Analysis: Boris Johnson’s desire to argue with his old enemies threatens to make the UK a pariah


On Monday, Johnson’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, unveiled the much-anticipated Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a piece of legislation that, if passed, would allow the UK government to unilaterally share the Brexit deal it agreed to with the EU in 2019. had agreed to ignore.

Two days later, the EU responded by launching legal proceedings against the UK for failing to implement parts of the protocol so far, while European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said “there is no legal or political justification whatsoever.” for a unilateral change an international agreement … let’s call a shovel a shovel: this is illegal.”

British government officials reacted angrily by insisting that the bill, if passed, would be perfectly legal. Suella Braverman, the attorney general who gave the green light to the new bill, went on television to defend the proposed legislation. In doing so, she accused the BBC of portraying the EU as “the good guys” and told ITV’s political editor that his claim that the bill would break that law was “Remaniac make-believe”.
On Tuesday, the Johnson government found itself cursing the name of another European institution, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), after it was forced to suspend a flight that would carry asylum seekers to Rwanda. The UK announced a deal in April that would allow asylum seekers to be relocated in the country and receive asylum in Rwanda. The UN human rights organization had previously warned the UK that the policy could be illegal as it could expose those refugees to human rights abuses in Rwanda.

The scheme had been widely criticized by human rights groups, who managed to get through numerous legal proceedings against individual expulsions, but failed in their attempt to suspend the flight. But when the ECtHR intervened on Tuesday evening and said the last asylum seekers to be on board had not exhausted their legal options in the UK, the plane was grounded.

Again the ministers responded by insisting the plan was legal. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has since suggested that the UK will enact its own Bill of Rights, which would allow it to effectively ignore the ECHR.

Johnson’s willingness to engage in public squabbles with major international institutions makes sense when you look at recent history. Both Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, battled the judiciary and the EU during the most frustrating days of Brexit. This, it is theorized among conservatives, gave both leaders a boost among their core supporters for attacking elite bodies that were blocking the will of the people.

“Historically, Boris has done well to attack large institutions like the EU and courts,” a former government minister told CNN. “These were not artificial battles, both Rwanda and Northern Ireland are the right government policies. But the tough way we’ve defended them suggests to me that Boris sees a silver lining,” she added.

In a way, this logic makes sense. Johnson has been hit by scandal after scandal and has seen his personal approval rating tank along with national polls for his conservative party.

He has had to decline a vote among his own party to remove him as leader and on Thursday night saw his own ethics adviser Christopher Geidt resign, saying Johnson’s administration had put him in an “impossible and detestable position”.

So a battle with the lofty elites in Brussels and Strasbourg over genuine conservative issues like Brexit and immigration could be just what Johnson needs to get things back on track.

However, every time a government becomes so fixated on domestic policy, it threatens to forget that allies and enemies around the world are paying attention.

CNN spoke to multiple Western diplomatic sources who said Johnson’s government had cast a dark shadow over their perception of the UK. A senior Western official who worked closely with the UK during the Ukraine crisis said that while allies were still coordinating with the UK, the feeling of concern that they don’t know which version of Johnson they will get has normalized.

“He’s not Donald Trump, but he’s so unpredictable that it’s easy for allies to see him as Donald Trump,” a Western diplomat said.

A European diplomat told CNN that “it’s hard to overestimate how much damage has been done. Trust has been badly damaged.” They pointed to the issue of Northern Ireland and said that “for our part, we know there are solutions to the protocol. But those solutions depend on trust. Why should we trust that he will not break another agreement in the future?”

Western officials say, with some sadness, that there were moments in the immediate aftermath of Russia invading Ukraine where they believed Johnson was going to act like a “stable and predictable” leader, as the Western diplomat put it.

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 bigger than our quarrels.”

However, the official went on to say that this sense of optimism quickly faded after Johnson compared Ukraine’s freedom struggle to Brexit.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the National Service of Thanksgiving held at St Paul's Cathedral as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Friday, June 3, 2022.

Conservatives in Westminster have mixed views on how bad this all is. Some worry that Johnson’s ongoing scandal and rhetoric is making the UK a pariah. Worse still, they fear that a country like the UK — a long-standing member of the rules-based, international order — that plays so quickly and loosely with international law, will set a terrible precedent at a time when democracy is many parts of the world is under threat world.

On the other hand, some MPs think Johnson’s critics are getting worked up about something normal people don’t care about. They say, not unreasonably, that a NATO member of the G7 with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – and one that has in many ways led the way in Ukraine – is not about to be knocked out by his allies.

Ultimately, Johnson’s international squabbles will most likely take place in the domestic political arena. Some will love that he takes a tough stance. Others will become increasingly embarrassed because this man is their prime minister.

“If you’re in Boris’ position, you might as well double down on some of these things. What has he got to lose?’ a senior Conservative MP told CNN. “Either things are so terminally bad that he has damned everything he does, or he has two years to turn things around before the election. So why not go out and argue on your own field?”

That summary makes a lot of sense when you’re in Westminster talking to people who spend too much time in Westminster. However, Johnson’s decisions have a serious impact on the lives of people who don’t spend time in Westminster and for whom this is really no game. Especially as the UK is going through the worst cost of living crisis it has endured in decades.

Johnson will not know if his red meat gamble has paid off until the next general election unless he is removed from office before then. Undeniably, there will be those who see him as the same Brexit street fighter who stands up for Britain against the bullies trying to take it down.

But there will be an awful lot of people who think that instead of fighting the EU and the ECHR, Johnson should think about ways to improve their lives.

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