Boris Johnson’s grand Brexit plan

August 09, 2019 10:57
Under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, No. 10 Downing Street is led by PR specialists rather than policy consultants. Photo: Reuters

Whether to investors or to international media, Boris Johnson’s do-or-die approach to Britain's withdrawal from the European Union is intriguing.

Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has been touring the United Kingdom but he has yet to table a concrete proposal on Brexit.

As pointed out by No. 10 Downing Street, Johnson has no confirmed plans to visit Brussels unless the EU is willing to relaunch Brexit negotiations that have been shelved since Theresa May's departure.

It seems to me that the reason why Johnson has yet to present a concrete Brexit plan is related to Britain's current internal and external struggles.

In the current climate, any no-deal plan will be meaningless. The parliament has repeatedly voted against a no-deal Brexit. Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach (prime minister of Ireland), has also conveyed to Johnson that Ireland sides with the EU on the issue.

And although the Conservatives have pledged support and loyalty to Johnson for now, their leaders such as the Scottish MP Ruth Davidson have said they won’t support a no-deal Brexit, which means that any concrete proposal is likely to lead to more divisions in society.

Johnson achieved some success when he was mayor of London, but few would consider him a down-to-earth leader. As such, it seems unrealistic to expect him to come up with something solid in a week's time.

On the other hand, if we look at the funding proposals and policies of Sajid Javid, the new financial secretary, the Johnson administration is set to spend heavily on a massive information campaign to explain to the people how a no-deal Brexit would impact aspects of day-to-day life such as travel and food supply.

According to a leading public relations agency, the UK government is going to shell out 100 million pounds (US$121.37 million) for the PR blitz.

As you know, Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the public consultation and PR strategy for Brexit some three years ago, has joined Boris Johnson’s cabinet as a senior advisor.

Together with Lee Cain, a key PR strategist, they are set to take charge of the new round of PR campaign for Brexit.

It is also said that Manning Gottlieb OMD, a leading PR agency, has received a request from the new administration to come up with the campaign ideas.

As some British media indicated, 10 Downing Street is now led by PR specialists rather than by policy consultants. It appears that the new cabinet’s idea is to mobilize the masses to shape the system and influence other countries.

Suppose public opinion favors a no-deal Brexit after the parliament resumes session in September, then Boris Johnson will be able to gather enough support to challenge the "Soft Brexiters" or even the "Remainders" in the party.

These people will have to either support Johnson’s plans or risk an early election.

From this perspective, one can say that Johnson’s Brexit plans are already in action. But instead of the traditional approach of diplomatic negotiations or policy advocacy, what is happening is a series of PR moves intended to lead the public towards Johnson’s desired outcome – people will support a timely Brexit, with or without a new agreement.

The full article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 2

Translation by Jennifer Wong

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal