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Protests Erupt in London as Boris Johnson Is Sworn In as New Prime Minister, Promising Hard Brexit

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Boris Johnson was sworn in as the new British prime minister Wednesday, pledging to deliver a swift Brexit and spending his first full day in office Thursday packing his Cabinet with hard-line Brexiteers. His election was the first time that a party’s membership directly chose the prime minister. The membership of the Conservative Party who voted for Johnson represents less than 1% of the British population. Johnson, who previously served as mayor of London and foreign secretary, replaces outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. Boris Johnson is a highly contentious figure in the United Kingdom who has built his career on controversy. He is known for outrageous political gaffes and is a close ally of President Donald Trump. He has vowed to cut taxes for the rich, and positioned himself as a friend to big banks. Thousands of protesters marched through Central London to protest the new prime minister Wednesday. We speak with Ash Sarkar, senior editor of Novara Media, who says Johnson has crafted a public persona for himself as “bumbling, ineffectual, posh but benign,” but says this facade conceals “someone who has always been a very ambitious man.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Boris Johnson was sworn in as the new British prime minister Wednesday, pledging to deliver a swift Brexit and spending his first full day in office Thursday packing his Cabinet with hard-line Brexiteers. Johnson addressed the House of Commons for the first time earlier today.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Our mission is to deliver Brexit on the 31st of October for the purpose of uniting and re-energizing our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on Earth.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Boris Johnson’s election was the first time that a party’s membership directly chose the prime minister. The membership of the Conservative Party who voted for Johnson represents less than 1% of the British population. Johnson, who previously served as mayor of London and foreign secretary, replaces outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. Half of May’s Cabinet have resigned or been pushed out since Johnson was named prime minister.

AMY GOODMAN: Boris Johnson is a highly contentious figure in the United Kingdom who’s built his career on controversy. He’s a close ally of President Donald Trump, known for outrageous political gaffes. He has vowed to cut taxes for the rich and positioned himself as a friend to big banks. This is opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn addressing the House of Commons after Boris Johnson’s initial remarks earlier today.

JEREMY CORBYN: No one underestimates this country, but the country is—but the country is deeply worried that the new prime minister overestimates himself. He inherits a country that’s been held back by nine years of austerity, that’s hit children and young people the hardest. Their youth centers have closed, their school funding cut, college budgets slashed. And, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, tuition fees have trebled. Their housing costs are higher than ever. Their jobs are lower paid. Opportunity and freedom have been taken away. Austerity was always a political choice, never an economic necessity. … People do not trust this prime minister to make the right choices for the majority of people in this country, when he’s also promising tax giveaways to the richest of big business—his own party’s funders.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Boris Johnson’s first day as prime minister was marked by major street protests. Thousands marched through Central London despite a scorching heat wave. Activists from Greenpeace briefly blocked the new prime minister from reaching Buckingham Palace to meet with the queen, by forming a human chain in the path of his motorcade. The demonstration was quickly dispersed by police.

Well, we’re going to London now, where we’re joined by Ash Sarkar, senior editor of Novara Media. She was in the streets of London at yesterday’s protest.

Ash, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Actually, it was Boris Johnson himself who said, back in something like 2016, that he’s more likely to be decapitated by a flying frisbee than to become prime minister of England. Your response, and what this all means for your country?

ASH SARKAR: Well, one can only hope about the flying frisbee thing. But I think that that was a classic piece of Boris Johnson disingenuousness. He has very candidly crafted a public persona for himself, which is sort of bumbling, ineffectual, posh but benign, whereas actually what that conceals is someone who has always been a very ambitious man, from when he was a little child. The first job that he ever wanted was to be world king.

He then went to Eton, which is one of the most prestigious private schools in the U.K. Indeed, it’s produced prime ministers, which has governed for 101 years of our parliamentary history. He then went to Oxford and was part of the Bullingdon Club, again another engine for the elite. So, he very much feels entitled to power, simply because of the circumstances of his birth, perhaps, rather than what he could actually do for the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ash, as we mentioned, he was selected by an infinitesimal percentage of Britain’s population. And even among them, Tory MPs, I just want to quote a brief passage from the New Statesman, where Martin Fletcher writes, “Tory MPs have watched Johnson close up for [many] years. They detest the man. They know perfectly well what a serially disloyal, untrustworthy, indolent, disorganised and egotistical charlatan he is.” Can you explain why they nevertheless voted for him?

ASH SARKAR: So, the reason why—so, the Tory selection process is a funny old beast, because first what happens is you have this sort of battle royale, where all the candidates are voted on by the Conservative MPs, and it’s whittled down to just two, and then those two go head to head in a vote which is carried out by the membership.

The reason why Boris Johnson got as far as he did through the parliamentary vote, even though he is incredibly disliked by a sizable number of his own MPs, is because those MPs are very, very scared at the moment of the fact that their grassroots—so, their core voters but also their membership—haven’t been voting Conservative, particularly in the last European Parliament elections. They voted for the Brexit Party. And they’ve also got another eye on Jeremy Corbyn, who is consistently either neck and neck with the Conservatives in the polls or indeed, just by a couple of points, pipping them to first place, and they’re thinking that they need someone who’s got, you know, public recognizability in order to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. So that’s how he made it that far.

But in terms of why would they dislike him, well, you just have to look at his record. He was sacked as a journalist by The Times for making up quotes. He then became mayor of London, in which he spent about a billion pounds on vanity projects, like the Garden Bridge, which never happened, like the water cannon, which was never used. As a foreign minister, he stumbled from one gaffe to the next blunder. He made comments which endangered Nazanin [Zaghari-Ratcliffe], who is still in an Iranian prison. He’s someone who, time and again, has shown a complete disregard for the standards that are set for those in public office. Conversely, that’s why a lot of the Conservative grassroots quite like him, because they see him as a maverick, someone who won’t let the rules get in the way of getting something done.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he is coming to power right now at an absolutely critical juncture. You have the crisis with Iran, that it looks like the U.S. has now just ensnared Britain in. So, they took Iran’s tanker. Iran then took one of their tankers. The tension in this area in the Gulf is higher than it’s been in years. He is in charge. And you have, of course, him announcing no-deal Brexit within 99 days. What does this mean on both parts?

ASH SARKAR: Well, if you look at the state of governmental departments, not just the Ministry of Defense, but you look at the Ministry of Education, you look at the Ministry of Justice, because of Brexit, where you’ve got a lot of ministerial churn, so you’ve got a high number of resignations and also sackings for other reasons, it meant that real work with those departments hasn’t really been done.

So, I’m not a big fan of militarism by any stretch of the imagination, but one example is, you look at the amount of investment in the Royal Navy. Of course, the Royal Navy is the most significant bit of the armed forces for dealing with this conflict with Iran. In terms of Britain’s military capability for, you know, singing in tune with Donald Trump and ratcheting up tensions, we really can’t put our money where our mouth is. It certainly doesn’t help that our last defense secretary, but one, got sacked for leaking highly confidential information from the National Security Council, and then his replacement, Penny Mordaunt, was only in place for 85 days, I think it was, before she had to resign because of Boris Johnson coming in. So, there is a huge amount of governmental dysfunction across every layer of the government, across every single department.

And then you go to this business of a no-deal Brexit. So, Boris Johnson is still insisting that he wants to get a deal from the European Union. He’s got a couple of problems in that regard, which is, one, the European Union have said that his idea of a deal is completely anathema to them, they will not countenance it; two, if he tries to come back with the same deal that Theresa May was able to negotiate—and it was defeated three times—his own backbenchers will be up in arms about it.

And problem number three is, he’s in fact inherited a much weaker parliamentary majority than his predecessor, Theresa May. The fact is, is that Theresa May is no longer prime minister because she lost her majority in 2017. And it meant that she had to endure defeat after defeat on her flagship piece of legislation. Now, because of external factors, including a Conservative MP being convicted of expenses fraud and another conservative MP who is currently being charged with three counts of sexual assault, Boris Johnson’s majority is even slimmer. So, he’s going to be in quite dire straits.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can he be forced, Ash, to call a general—an early general election?

ASH SARKAR: Well, the mechanism for that happening, because of something called the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which really is a dreadful piece of legislation, which has been specifically designed to prop up weak governments, it means that there would have to be a specifically worded motion of no confidence in the government. And if that motion of no confidence was passed by a simple majority, which means half the MPs plus one, then there would be 14 days in which someone else could form a different government. If that doesn’t happen, then we go to a general election. The other method through which you can have an early general election is by a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons.

Now, I have a feeling that Boris Johnson is looking at his options quite carefully. And rather than being forced into a general election by a motion that’s put forward by one of the opposition parties, he just might go for an early general election himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Ash Sarkar, senior editor at Novara Media, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 with you to talk about taxing the rich, also what would happen with the Welsh election in August, what would this mean for the prime ministership, and more. Go to democracynow.org for Part 2 in our web exclusives.

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