As the Conservative Party’s leadership election enters its final week, the two candidates have similar, but different plans for dealing with Brexit. While many still believe that Boris Johnson will win, the contest is looking a lot closer than it was a few weeks ago and there is a possibility that Jeremy Hunt could win when the results are declared on Tuesday, 23 July.
Of the two candidates, Mr Johnson is clearly the most strident when it comes to Brexit – Johnson insists that the UK will leave on 31 October “do or die”. Hunt’s position is more nuanced, but also includes the prospect of a no-deal exit: If the prospect for a deal with the EU exists, Hunt would be willing to delay the UK’s exit further. However, if by 30 September there is no prospect for a deal, then the UK would leave without one on 31 October.
For both, achieving an exit on negotiated terms that the UK Parliament finds acceptable is a significant challenge. Not only are the EU adamant that they will not renegotiate, there are practical challenges to achieving this together with an underlying belief in the EU that the UK will either give in or eventually decide to reverse Brexit.
The EU recently had parliamentary elections and the leadership of its key bodies is changing, with final confirmatory votes this week. This means that there will be a new EU team that the UK has to deal with and that fact alone will lead to time delays, and that of course assumes that they will renegotiate.
For the EU, Charles Michel, former Prime Minister of Belgium, is to take over from Donald Tusk, who will convene the regular meetings of heads of government that would need to deal with the withdrawal agreement; Ursula Von Der Leyen, the German defence minister, is to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission president and she will lead on trade negotiations with third countries. In the European Parliament, Italian David-Maria Sassoli was elected president of the European Parliament, which puts a Socialist at the head of the European Parliament. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the withdrawal agreement, remains in post.
Both Hunt and Johnson plan to have the Irish border backstop removed and replaced with something entirely different. Given the EU’s insistence on retaining the backstop, and the issues mentioned above, this suggests an increased likelihood of no agreement being reached between London and Brussels – under whoever becomes Prime Minister. However, it remains far from clear whether a no-deal exit can be implemented if the UK Parliament continues to object to it. In that eventuality, the prospect of a General Election in the UK will increase, but there is no real sign that the disagreements within the UK on how to proceed would be resolved even with a General Election.