The UK variant is likely deadlier, more infectious and becoming dominant. But the vaccines still work well against it


Kirsty Short, The University of Queensland

New research published this week in the British Medical Journal found the coronavirus variant originating in the United Kingdom, called B.1.1.7, is substantially more deadly than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.

The authors say the B.1.1.7 variant is between 32 and 104% deadlier. However, it’s important to recognise these data were only collected from one group of people so more research is needed to see if these numbers hold true in other groups of patients.

The B.1.1.7 variant is becoming the dominant virus in many parts of the world, and is more infectious than the original strain (UK authorities have suggested it’s up to 70% more transmissible). This makes sense because a virus can become more transmissible as it evolves. However, it’s actually a strange thing for a virus to become more deadly over time (more on that later).

The good news is preliminary data suggest COVID vaccines still perform very well against this variant.

What did the study find?

There are two ways to check if someone has this variant. The first is by doing full genomic sequencing, which takes time and resources. The other, easier way, is to analyse results from the standard PCR test, which normally takes a swab from your nose and throat.

This test targets two viral genes in the swab sample, one of which doesn’t work very well with this variant (it’s called the “S-gene”). So if someone was positive for one of these genes, but negative for the “S-gene”, there’s a good chance they’re infected with the B.1.1.7 variant.

The study authors looked at the S-gene status of 109,812 people with COVID, and looked at how many died. They found S-gene negative people had a higher chance of dying 28 days after testing positive for the virus. The study “matched” patients in the S-gene positive and S-gene negative groups based on various factors (including age) to ensure these factors didn’t confound the results.




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This matches a report from the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which said in January there’s a “realistic possibility” infection with this strain is linked with a higher chance of death.

With increased death from a variant, you would also expect to see increased hospitalisations and ICU admissions in places where the variant is surging. We’re still waiting for better data on this, but one Danish study suggested an increased risk of hospitalisation from this variant.

But why is it more deadly?

Viruses have a selective advantage (meaning they’re more likely to outcompete other viruses) if they’re able infect more hosts. It’s also advantageous for the virus if they can evade the host’s immune response, because it helps them survive longer and reproduce more.

But it’s actually quite strange for this variant to be more deadly. There’s not a selective advantage for a virus to kill its host, because it might kill its host before they transmit the virus.

Scientists still need to find out why this variant is more deadly, and how it came about.

One possibility is this variant’s increased disease severity is linked to its increased transmissibility. For example, it could be that because it’s more infectious, it’s leading to larger clusters of infection including in places like aged care homes, which we know are linked to more deaths. We don’t know for sure yet.

Vaccines still respond well to this variant

It’s important to note the current crop of vaccines still perform well against the variant.

A slight drop in the numbers of neutralising antibodies responding to the B.1.1.7 virus was recorded after vaccination with vaccines from Novavax and Moderna. But the protection these vaccines offer should still be sufficient to prevent severe disease. This variant also had a negligible impact on the function of T-cells, which can kill virus-infected cells and help control the infection.

Preliminary data suggest people given the AstraZeneca vaccine also experienced a mild decrease in the number of circulating antibodies when infected with the B.1.1.7 variant. But again, the effect was relatively modest, and the authors say the efficacy of the vaccine against this variant is similar to that of the original Wuhan strain of the virus.




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It’s becoming dominant

The B.1.1.7 variant is becoming the dominant strain in many parts of the world. The ABC reports it’s dominant in at least 10 countries.

In the UK it represents around 98% of new cases, and up to 90% of new cases in some parts of Spain.

In Denmark, new cases from this variant were around 0.3% in November last year, rising to 65% of new cases in February. It accounts for more than two-thirds of new cases in the Netherlands.

In the United States, the states of Florida, Texas and California (among others) are seeing significant increases in the number of cases from this variant.

It’s possible the spread of this variant is even higher than reported. The ability to detect its spread is dependent on how often genomic sequencing is done, and many countries aren’t currently in the position to do regular genomic testing.

There’s a suggestion from some researchers and commentators the variant is linked with a surge in cases among kids. However, this observation remains largely anecdotal and it’s unclear if this simply reflects rising total case numbers in certain places.The Conversation

Kirsty Short, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus Update: International


General

Italy

Russia

United Kingdom

USA

China

India

Papua New Guinea

Singapore

Africa

Brazil

Boris Johnson sends UK voters to the polls, hoping for the ‘right’ kind of Brexit. But it just might backfire


Simon Tormey, University of Bristol

And so the UK will head to an election on December 12 to try to resolve the spectacular mess that is Brexit. It’s an outcome many of us had been predicting for some time.




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The only surprise is that it came about as it did. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has, after all, just managed what seemed nearly impossible a mere few weeks back, which is to both achieve a compromise agreement with the European Union over the terms of withdrawal and convince the House of Commons that it should vote in favour of it, and by a princely majority of 30.

So why did Johnson seek an election? And why, at the third attempt, did Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agree? More generally, will an election get us out of the royal mess the UK finds itself in?

It’s not if you Brexit, but how

As far as Johnson is concerned, he wants Brexit, but he doesn’t want any old Brexit. He wants a “proper” Brexit, a clean break from the EU that will, as his mantra insists, deliver the UK the ability to negotiate its own trade deals.

The only way Johnson can do that is by differentiating between the trade regime for Northern Ireland and for the rest of the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) doesn’t like it. Most of the House of Commons doesn’t like it.

So rather than try to push through an agreement that would be sliced and diced on its way through the House of Commons until it was no longer recognisable as Brexit, Johnson prefers to roll the dice and trust the instincts of the electorate to deliver a larger majority. This will in turn permit him to ignore the DUP and isolate the softer elements of his own parliamentary party, assuming they haven’t been deselected in the run-up to the election.

What’s in it for Labour?

Why did Corbyn agree after turning down an election three times in recent weeks?

He didn’t want an election with the threat of a no-deal October 31 deadline. With an agreement in place with the EU for the terms of the UK’s exit, the objection is no longer valid.

Corbyn may be 15 or so points behind in the polls, but he was over 20 points down in the polls against Theresa May in 2017, and what happened? Labour fought an excellent campaign and shredded May’s majority to the point where her premiership became defunct.

He feels he can do this again running on a platform against austerity and inequality.

He may be right. This election is difficult to call, not least because of Labour’s own position on Brexit, which is a nuanced one, to put it mildly. Its pitch is that a Labour government will renegotiate the only-just-renegotiated withdrawal agreement and put the deal to the people in another referendum.

So they think they can do better than Johnson as far as negotiating with the EU is concerned, but they’re not prepared to campaign in favour of what it is they renegotiate. Let’s just say the subtlety of that position may be lost on some parts of the electorate.

Minor parties will play a major role

But this isn’t going to be a contest of Labour versus the Conservatives. There are new elements in the mix and some more familiar ones to make it even harder to see through the darkened glass.

The new elements are Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party standing for an even cleaner and harder Brexit than Johnson’s. There is also the Liberal Democrats, who have repositioned themselves under new leader Jo Swinson as a remain party – not a referendum party, but an out and out remain party. With around 50% of the electorate favouring remain over any iteration of Brexit, this is fertile soil for creating upsets in marginal seats, perhaps even Johnson’s own.

The more familiar elements that complicate matters further are the regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Welsh voted to leave in 2016, but with a patrician Tory in No. 10, will they back leave parties in the election? It has to be doubtful.

The remainer Scottish National Party (SNP) will no doubt do very well in Scotland. Northern Ireland may lean even more heavily to remain parties in the knowledge that unionism was sold out in Johnson’s compromise with the EU.

So what’s going to happen?

The honest answer is no one knows. Party loyalties will be near irrelevant in what is being billed as the “Brexit election”.

The one constant in all this is that the country remains as deeply split as it was in 2016. No big swings in opinion have taken place to suggest a clear victory is likely for either remain or leave-backing political parties. And there are narratives around austerity and inequality that may play out strongly, as they did in 2017.




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A hung parliament is, it would seem, the most likely destination. If it is, then what of Brexit? In this scenario, Brexit continues to be what it has been for the past three years, a kind of impossible object of desire: elusive, divisive, polarising.

Many pundits seem to think Johnson is a shoo-in for a majority and will therefore get his Brexit. But don’t be so sure.

Remainer forces are buoyant that they will in effect get a chance to rerun the 2016 referendum. They will be better organised and more focused on the possibilities for tactical voting presented by a single-issue election.

There is a chance – just a chance – that far from smoothing the UK’s exit from the EU, the election blows up in Johnson’s face and delivers a remain parliament.The Conversation

Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The UK Supreme Court ruling on suspending parliament is a warning for Australian politicians



The UK Supreme Court ruled there was no good reason for Boris Johnson to advise the Queen to prorogue parliament.
Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament Handout/EPA

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

The UK Supreme Court’s finding that Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament (or prorogation) was unlawful has raised the question of whether similar judicial action could be taken to challenge a controversial prorogation in Australia.

There have been several occasions in the past when prorogation has been used in Australia to achieve political aims.

For example, in 2016, the Turnbull government used prorogation as a means of forcing the Senate to sit and reconsider a previously defeated bill in order for it to become a double dissolution trigger.

The Keneally government in NSW and the Rann government in South Australia both prorogued parliament for long periods prior to elections. The moves prompted allegations they were intended to shut down embarrassing inquiries, but no one sought to challenge them in court.

In light of the UK legal challenge to Johnson’s prorogation that impeded parliamentary action prior to the Brexit date of October 31, will similar court challenges to these types of suspensions be more likely in the future? And would Australian courts consider hearing such challenges?

What the UK Supreme Court ruled

The UK case potentially has relevance for Australia because it neatly side-stepped the more contentious question of whether the prime minister’s advice to the Queen could be the subject of judicial review on the ground it was given for an improper purpose.

Or as the British media more bluntly put it, whether Johnson lied to the Queen.

Instead, the Supreme Court focused on its judicial power to determine the existence and extent of the executive’s “prerogative” powers.

These are the traditional powers of the monarch that have been passed down over centuries rather than being conferred by law. Australian and UK courts have long recognised that it is up to the courts, through applying the common law, to determine the scope of these powers.




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In doing so, the UK court looked to fundamental constitutional principles, such as parliamentary sovereignty and responsible government, as imposing limits on the executive’s power to prorogue.

It recognised that parliamentary sovereignty would be undermined if the executive could prevent parliament from exercising its legislative authority for as long as it pleased.

It also expressed concern that responsible government would be undermined and replaced by “unaccountable government” if parliament were prevented by the executive from scrutinising its actions.

The Supreme Court held that advice to the Queen to prorogue parliament, and any decision based upon that advice, will be

unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive.

Whether or not the prorogation has this effect is a question of fact which falls well within the jurisdiction of the courts to determine.

‘Reasonable justification’ to suspend parliament

More controversial is the assessment of what is a “reasonable justification” to suspend parliament.

The Supreme Court pointed out that a short period of prorogation for the purpose of ending a session of parliament and starting a new one would not require further justification.

The court would only need to consider additional justification in “unusual circumstances”. In doing so, it would need to be sensitive to the responsibilities and experience of the prime minister.

In this particular case of the prorogation of the UK parliament for five weeks, the court deemed the circumstances to be not only “unusual”, but “exceptional”.




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This was because a “fundamental change” in the Constitution of the United Kingdom is to occur on October 31 when the country is due to leave the European Union. In addition, the House of Commons had already demonstrated that it does not support the government on Brexit, and the prorogation would prevent parliament from carrying out its constitutional role for a significant period before that date.

The Supreme Court was also not offered a reasonable justification by the UK government for the length of the prorogation. It was merely told that a new session of parliament was desired so the government’s agenda could be set out in the Queen’s Speech.

Moreover, there was no consideration by the government of how much time was needed to scrutinise and enact legislation prior to the October 31 deadline, or the competing merits of adjourning or proroguing parliament.

The court pointed to the prime minister’s constitutional responsibility to take into account all relevant interests, including those of parliament, when advising the Queen. In an unusually pointed observation, it noted there was “no hint” of Johnson exercising that responsibility.

Based on this evidence, the court ruled it was impossible to conclude there was “any reason, let alone a good reason” to prorogue parliament for five weeks.

This meant that not only was the advice to prorogue parliament unlawful, but also that parliament would be able to continue in session.

Boris Johnson sought the Queen’s approval to prorogue parliament for five weeks. The Supreme Court ruled there was no reason for him to do so.
Victoria Jones/EPA

Will the UK ruling set a precedent in Australia?

Would the same kind of challenge occur if a government prorogued parliament in Australia?

Proroguing parliament for a short time to ensure it sits to exercise its functions, as was done by the Turnbull Government in 2016, would clearly be acceptable.

Proroguing parliament for a long period would be much more vulnerable to challenge if it prevented parliamentary inquiries from continuing, for example, or delayed the tabling of embarrassing documents.

The government would have to be prepared to provide evidence to the courts showing “reasonable justification” for the period of prorogation, if it were challenged.




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Would Australian courts be prepared to follow the UK Supreme Court precedent?

They would certainly give serious consideration to it, as this is the only precedent on the prorogation of parliament in a Westminster-style system of government, and the unanimous judgement of a significant court.

Moreover, the UK court’s reasoning is very similar to existing Australian cases in which courts have ruled that the common law must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with constitutional principles.

This means that Australian governments should, in the future, be quite careful when proroguing parliament. They will need to ensure they do not do so for unnecessarily long periods of time and to prevent parliament from fulfilling its legislative and scrutiny functions, especially during periods of political controversy.

If their action is challenged in the courts, they will also need to be prepared to provide evidence of a reasonable justification for doing so.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Boris Johnson has suspended the UK parliament. What does this mean for Brexit?



UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend the parliament at a crucial time for Brexit negotiations may stymie his opponents.
AAP/UK Parliamentary Recording Unit handout

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

Boris Johnson has secured the prorogation of the British parliament, which means it will be prevented from sitting for much of the crucial period between now and the Brexit date of October 31.

So what options do those opposed to a no-deal Brexit now have in parliament to prevent it?

A cunningly placed and timed prorogation

If a majority of the House of Commons were opposed to a no-deal Brexit, two primary routes are open to it. One would be the enactment of legislation requiring the government to seek a further deferral of the Brexit date until after some circuit-breaking event could be held, such as a new referendum or general election. The other would be a vote of no-confidence in the government and an early general election.

Both would be extremely difficult to achieve within the now very tight parliamentary timeframes – which presumably was the point. This prorogation is cunningly timed and placed. The fact that parliament has not been prorogued for the entire period leading up to the Brexit date makes it harder to argue in the courts that the prorogation is unconstitutional.




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The fact that Johnson gave prorogation advice to the queen before a court could decide on whether to issue an injunction to prevent the giving of such advice (with a hearing on the matter having been scheduled for September 6) also potentially stymies the use of the courts to prevent prorogation. This is because the main avenue for legal attack is in relation to the giving of the advice by ministers, rather than the action of the queen in giving effect to that advice. The latter would normally be regarded as “non-justiciable” – outside the appropriate exercise of judicial power.

In addition, slicing up the sitting period with prorogation in the middle, from September 10 to October 13, means it is now likely there is too little time to achieve all the procedural steps necessary to pass legislation or the resolutions necessary to secure a change in government.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the government largely controls the order of proceedings in the House of Commons and prorogation effectively wipes the parliamentary slate clean of any uncompleted action. Any partially completed action would have to start again once parliament resumes.

Confidence, fixed-term parliaments and an election

One alternative that has previously been raised is a vote of no confidence in the government and an early election. The UK has fixed five-year terms for its parliament. But an early election can be held if a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons votes for it, or if there is a vote of no confidence in the government and after 14 days there has been no vote of confidence in the government.

In either case, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 states that the election is to be held on a day appointed by the queen on the recommendation of the prime minister.

A senior government source reportedly told The Guardian:

We have been very clear that if there’s a no-confidence vote, [the prime minister] won’t resign. We get to set an election date. We don’t want an election, but if we have to set a date, it’s going to be after 31 October.

What could be done to avoid that outcome?

The House of Commons could instead act to force the resignation of the prime minister, secure the appointment of a caretaker prime minister, bring about an early election and authorise the new prime minister to seek to defer Brexit until after the election was held so the people could make the ultimate decision on Brexit.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act deals solely with issues of confidence in relation to the holding of an early election. It provides that only a resolution “that this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” can cause an early election. It does not deal with other expressions of no confidence in the government.

As the then clerk of the House of Commons advised the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2018, the House could pass a “no confidence motion in other terms than those in the Act”, including no confidence in a specific minister.

This would have a “massive political effect but [would] not trigger the terms of the Act”.

So if, for example, the house expressed no confidence in Boris Johnson to hold the office of prime minister, he would be forced, by convention, to resign.

In addition to passing a vote of no confidence in a prime minister, the house may pass a “constructive motion of confidence”, which states that it has confidence in someone else to form a government.

This may be a compromise candidate who is trusted by both sides to run a caretaker government, which makes no significant policy decisions or appointments but simply undertakes necessary ordinary business until an election is held.

The formation of a caretaker government is consistent with British parliamentary practice. Winston Churchill formed one and popularised the “caretaker” term in 1945.

When a prime minister resigns, he or she might give advice to the queen as to whom to appoint as his or her successor. But the queen is not bound by this advice, as the outgoing prime minister ceases to be responsible to parliament for it.

Instead, the queen is obliged to appoint as prime minister the person most likely to hold the confidence of the House of Commons. If the House of Commons has declared, by resolution, who this person is, then the queen has clear evidence, so her appointment of that person cannot be questioned.

The next consideration is that a caretaker prime minister is by convention constrained in undertaking significant acts. If parliament wanted the prime minister to renegotiate the Brexit date so the people could decide on Brexit as a key policy in a general election, it would be prudent for a parliamentary resolution to authorise this action.




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Finally, in the United Kingdom it has historically been the case that fundamental constitutional change has been put to the people in a general election. An example is the equally divisive debate over Home Rule for Ireland and the limitation of the powers of the House of Lords.

This means the House of Commons would need to pass a formal resolution that “this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”, referring to the government established by the new prime minister. This would allow an early election to be held.

In addition, to ensure the caretaker government was for the shortest possible time, the house could resolve that the prime minister should set a particular date for that election.

A series of resolutions could achieve this, but it would require a united front from those opposed to a no-deal Brexit and clever parliamentary tactics to achieve it within the very limited sitting time available.

It may prove that prorogation was the masterstroke to prevent this from occurring.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many



The Morrison government must have a plan for Australia’s involvement if the “peacekeeping” descends into hostility.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.

Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.

But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.

It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.




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Nor is it clear what form Australian engagement might take to deter Iran’s threats to tanker traffic. This includes its seizing of a British-flagged vessel.

Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.

The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.

Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.

This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.

Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?

What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?

What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.

We have seen this before in 1984, when traffic in the Gulf was brought to a standstill by Iran floating mines into busy sea lanes.

What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?

In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.

The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.

That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.




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Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.

Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.

Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.

These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.

Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.

As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:

Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.

What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.

Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.

The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.

Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Boris Johnson, ‘political Vegemite’, becomes the UK prime minister. Let the games begin



New UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will succeed or fail on the back of the single dominant issue that dominates British politics: Brexit.
AAP/EPA/Will Oliver

Simon Tormey, University of Sydney

To no-one’s great surprise, Boris Johnson has been elected by the members of the Conservative Party to be the new leader, and by extension prime minister of the United Kingdom, taking over from Theresa May.

Such a turn of events seemed highly improbable a few months ago. Johnson is a polarising figure not just for the country at large but for his own party. An instantly recognisable figure with his unruly blonde mop, rotund Billy Bunteresque figure and fruity Etonian accent, Johnson is political Vegemite. He delights those who look for “authenticity” in their political leaders, often code for plain speaking, unscripted rudeness and lack of civility. He appals those who expect politicians to abide by some basic principles, uphold integrity in public life and seek to defend the common interest through negotiation and compromise.

Those who detect similar qualities in Johnson to those characterising Donald Trump would not be wrong. Both are noted for improbable haircuts, but beyond that they share a penchant for seeing politics in simplistic and antagonistic terms. Politics is a zero-sum game.




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For some to win, others must lose, and those others invariably include every shade of minority identity, whether it be Muslims, homosexuals, immigrants or otherwise feckless folk who need to try harder, do more, speak better English or in some other way accommodate themselves to the dominant majority.

For all of her faults (and there were many), Theresa May at least stood for a certain even-handedness, a recognition of the need for a centre-right party to build a coalition across disadvantage as well as advantage, and to respect differences. That accommodating rhetoric is likely to disappear with the end of her premiership.

But Johnson will succeed or fail on the back of the single dominant issue that dominates British politics: Brexit. How will his approach differ from that of his immediate predecessor?

Johnson has promised throughout his campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party that he will bring Britain out of the European Union by October 31, “do or die”. No going back to the withdrawal agreement. No compromise with the Northern Ireland backstop or with many other elements that so irritate the “hard Brexit” wing of the party.

So much for the rhetoric. The reality is that the EU is not going to change the withdrawal agreement. Nor will the House of Commons permit a no-deal Brexit. Only last week an amendment was passed that effectively demonstrated the strength of the anti-no deal majority in parliament.

This leaves very little room to manoeuvre. If Johnson remains true to the no deal rhetoric then we can expect a vote of no-confidence quite quickly in parliament, leading to elections perhaps as soon as November.

If, as seems more likely, Johnson manages to get the EU to change some words in the political declaration, such as the non-binding part of the withdrawal agreement, then he may seek to re-present what in essence was May’s deal back to the house in the hope that enough Labour MPs can be persuaded to join with the bulk of the Conservative Party (though not the hard-core European Research Group wing) to get it over the line. But this also seems improbable, likely leading again to an election.

A third possibility is that he recognises the intractability of the situation, and also the perils of calling an election as far as the prospects for his own party and premiership are concerned, and seeks a further period of negotiation with the EU. This might be for six months, a year or even more. Given Johnson’s well-documented desire to exercise power, such a scenario should not be ruled out.

But there is also fourth possibility, and this is the one that is exercising the greater speculation among the chattering classes in the UK. This is that recognising the lack of a majority for a no-deal Brexit in parliament, Johnson decides to “prorogue” parliament, a fancy term for suspending parliament in order to ram through an agreement on an executive basis.




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In effect, this is using the idea of “the will of the people” to overturn parliamentary democracy. The last time it was used in the UK was in the 1940s in order to undertake much-needed constitutional change to the status of the House of Lords.

The worry here, of course, is that this looks much more like the kind of “putsch”-style politics we are accustomed to seeing in banana republics than in one of the oldest democracies in the world.

So what many are wondering is whether behind the carefully confected image of a bumbling, playful figure so beloved of a certain wing of the conservative electorate, lies a neo-fascist figure willing and perhaps able to sacrifice democracy on the altar of English, as opposed to British, nationalism.

Let the games begin.The Conversation

Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.