On Thursday, Britain’s Boris Johnson finally bowed to growing pressure from within his own Conservative Party and said he would step down as the country’s prime minister. He will leave behind a full plate for his successor. At home, the U.K. is battling a crushing cost-of-living crisis as inflation climbs and growth in the British economy slows. All this as it locks horns with the European Union — its principal trading partner — over critical aspects of its post-Brexit future.
And then there is the war in Ukraine. Under Johnson, Britain has emerged as second only to the U.S. in providing aid to Kyiv as it resists Russia’s invasion.
Grid looks ahead at what might change and what is likely to stay the same as Britain — and the world — waits to learn the identity of the next occupant of No. 10 Downing St.
Ukraine loses a friend — will it matter?
If this really is the end of the line for Johnson in British politics, perhaps he could try running for office in Ukraine. According to one recent poll, he has a 90 percent favorability rating in that country, higher than any other foreign leader and only a few points behind President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (His support back in Britain is around 23 percent.) Ukrainian tributes to Johnson have included a road named after him near Odessa and a pastry from a Kyiv bakery with a meringue topping that vaguely resembles his trademark disheveled hair. When Johnson survived a no-confidence vote in early June, Zelenskyy called it “great news,” telling the Financial Times, “I am glad we have not lost a very important ally.”
The affection makes sense. Even before the Russian invasion, the British government worked in tandem with the U.S. to publicize intelligence suggesting an imminent attack at a time when many European leaders (including Ukraine’s, to some extent) were still skeptical that Russian President Vladimir Putin would really go through with it. The U.K. has been the second-biggest provider of aid to Ukraine after the United States (as percentage of GDP, they’re roughly equal), including more than $38 billion in military aid since the war began.
This aid has included the long-range artillery systems that Ukraine has been desperately pleading for during the grinding, ongoing battle in the eastern Donbas region. Johnson visited Kyiv twice during the war for meetings with Zelenskyy and has framed the war in Churchillian terms, telling Ukraine’s Parliament, “This is Ukraine’s finest hour, that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come.”
The cynical reading of this is that Johnson has been “wagging the dog” — doubling down on an international crisis to distract from his domestic troubles. It’s also an inconvenient fact that concerns about Russia’s deepening authoritarianism and militarism didn’t stop Britain’s political leaders, including Johnson himself, from benefiting for years from the support of Kremlin-linked Russian oligarchs who have made “Londongrad” a second home. Since the invasion, the British government has sanctioned a number of these oligarchs and taken steps to crack down on money laundering.
Whether or not Johnson’s stance on the war was heartfelt, it’s unlikely that a new prime minister will change it dramatically. “There is quite a broad and cross-party consensus in the U.K. behind strong support for Kyiv,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told Grid. “A more competent, legitimate and consistent new British government might actually be better for Ukraine in the long run, as there will inevitably be growing pressures if, as is likely, the war drags on and the costs are felt more keenly at home.” Underlining the degree to which Ukraine is a unifying issue in the country, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who has been the public face of much of the British support effort for Ukraine, is considered by many to be the early favorite to replace Johnson.
Not that this has stopped the Kremlin from gloating a bit at Johnson’s downfall. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to the news on Thursday with a gleeful post on Telegram, writing, “The moral of the story — do not seek to destroy Russia. Russia cannot be destroyed. You can break your teeth on it, and then choke on them.”
The future of Brexit and the state of the union
Johnson’s legacy as prime minister is likely to always be tied to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. He was one of the most prominent campaigners for the “leave” side during the original Brexit referendum in 2016. He successfully campaigned for prime minister in 2019 on the promise that he alone could “get Brexit done,” and to his credit, he did indeed get it done. But the way he got it done leaves a number of unresolved questions and dilemmas for his successor to handle. The trickiest of these is likely to be the status of Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland problem has bedeviled the Brexit process from the beginning. The issue is that it’s the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the EU. Prior to Brexit, goods, services and people could cross that border unfettered. Since Brexit, goods crossing between the U.K. and EU are supposed to be checked for compliance with standards and tariffs. But both sides feared that imposing a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could jeopardize the hard-won peace the region currently enjoys after decades of sectarian violence.
Under a compromise that was reached, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, goods are checked when they travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., and Northern Ireland is continuing to follow a number of EU laws, such as food standards. Northern Ireland’s loyalists (the largely Protestant faction that favors closer ties to the U.K.) hate the protocol since it effectively creates an economic border on the Irish Sea.
And so, Johnson’s government has been pushing for a bill in Parliament that would allow it to scrap parts of the protocol, to make it easier for some goods to flow between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU. This is very controversial, given that the protocol is settled international law at this point. Former prime minister Theresa May, who failed to get Brexit done herself in large part because of the Northern Ireland issue, gave a blistering speech in Parliament last month, accusing Johnson of creating this problem and saying that “as a patriot,” she could not support a bill that would diminish Britain’s standing in the world.
Tories in Parliament say they are pressing forward with passing the bill, even after Johnson’s departure. Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London, told Grid that much depends on which faction of the Conservative Party the next prime minister hails from, but that right now, very few are daring to deviate from Johnson’s hard-line stance. “There are probably some people in the Conservative Party who would see the point in doing some stuff around the margins with the EU to make the operation of the protocol less onerous, but wouldn’t dare say so in the current climate,” he said.
The international consequences of unilaterally scrapping the protocol could be dramatic. The EU is already taking legal action against the U.K. in international courts over what it says is a violation of international law, and there are growing fears that a U.K.-EU trade war could break out.
Meanwhile, politics in Belfast are in a state of dramatic and unpredictable flux right now. The main loyalist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is traditionally aligned with Johnson’s Conservatives, is blocking the formation of a new government in Northern Ireland until the protocol is changed. And for the first time ever, Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party that was formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, became Northern Ireland’s largest party in elections in May. While Irish reunification is still a long shot in the coming years, polls show support for it has substantially increased since Brexit.
Combine developments in Northern Ireland with calls by Scotland’s government to hold a new independence referendum, and a new prime minister could find themselves in a fight to literally keep the country from coming apart.
Troubles on the homefront
Another pressure on the country: spiraling inflation that is souring the mood of voters across Britain.
A striking illustration came just days ago, as British social media users shared photos of tubs of a common — and usually inexpensive — brand of butter being stamped with security tags, as supermarkets tried to deter would-be thieves from attempting to swipe the increasingly costly staple from their shelves. Prices of Lurpak branded butter are up 30 percent at certain supermarkets since January, according to Bloomberg figures — one of a series of price hikes that has triggered a nationwide cost-of-living crisis.
As Grid has previously reported, inflation is climbing globally, and Britain is no exception. Annual inflation in the country is currently running at more than 9 percent, with the country’s central bank warning that it could rise to around 11 percent.
The resultant pressure on the public, and on the government’s finances, could complicate things for potential Conservative Party candidates vying to replace Johnson. Announcing his departure on Thursday, Johnson said that he was confident that his party — traditionally the party of tax cuts and low government spending — would select someone committed to “cutting taxes, because that is the way to generate the growth and the income we need to pay for great public services.”
But the very same morning, the U.K.’s independent watchdog on public finances warned that the government’s balance sheet was already stretched, flagging the need for tax increases.
It makes for an uninspiring backdrop as the Conservative Party looks to find someone more electable than Johnson; concerns that he would prove an electoral liability in the next national polls, due by early 2025, were a key driver behind the rebellion to oust him.
To make matters worse for his eventual successor: Even as prices rise, growth in the British economy is sputtering. The economy contracted in April and in March after showing no growth in February.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.