King Boris’s First Test

With the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union now set to take effect on January 31, 2020, the most important challenge facing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is negotiating his country's new relationship with the bloc. He has every incentive to keep that process as non-controversial as possible.

LONDON – Wars end when the belligerents give up fighting. The surest way for this to happen, and sometimes the least destructive, is through a decisive battle that leads to unconditional surrender. Boris Johnson’s overwhelming victory in the United Kingdom’s general election this month was such a battle. With the opposition parties completely routed, Johnson now enjoys the unlimited power bestowed on British prime ministers with large majorities. Britain’s unwritten constitution dispenses with the checks and balances in other national constitutions, allowing an absolute sovereignty to the majority in Parliament often described as “elective dictatorship.”

Johnson’s reputation for recklessness makes this a frightening prospect, but history suggests that elective dictatorship has one important redeeming feature. The concentration of power means concentration of responsibility. With parliamentary opposition now irrelevant, Johnson will have to confront a more powerful opponent: economic and social reality. Johnson will now have to reconcile his many contradictory promises and inconsistent policies – and he will be personally blamed if he cannot make two plus two equal five.

With Brexit now set to take effect on January 31, 2020, the most important challenge Johnson faces is negotiating the UK’s new relationship with the European Union. The outcome will determine whether Johnson succeeds or fails as prime minister, and the process got off to a bad start three days after the election, when he vowed to enact a law ruling out any extension of the post-Brexit transition period beyond December 2020. This would require completing the negotiations within a totally impracticable 12-month deadline.

Johnson’s announcement caused near-panic in financial markets, with the pound rapidly losing all its gains from Johnson’s election. This reaction was understandable, since Johnson’s unrealistic deadline will prolong the debilitating uncertainty that has blighted Britain’s economy this year.

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© Project Syndicate

© Project Syndicate

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