Boris Johnson as prime minister – what does it mean for charities and Brexit?

Boris Johnson has been elected as leader of the Conservative party and will become our new prime minister.

You can read about what Mr Johnson as prime minister means for charities in my colleague Chris’ blog post. Here I’m going to focus on what it means for Brexit, and the consequences of that for NCVO members.

Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign saw him promise a wide package of policy reforms, but it’s Brexit that will require his immediate attention. Parliament’s summer recess begins on 25 July, and with just three months between taking office and the UK’s scheduled departure from the European Union on 31 October, the new prime minister has very little time to secure an orderly exit from the EU.

No deal likelier than ever?

The clear frontrunner for the top job from the moment Theresa May announced her resignation, Mr Johnson spearheaded the campaign to leave the EU in 2016. He resigned as foreign secretary in protest at Ms May’s Brexit approach and has since been a consistent critic of the government’s negotiations, describing the approach as a ‘moral and intellectual humiliation’.

During the leadership campaign, Mr Johnson further hardened his stance on Brexit, although it has not always been clear what exact course he would pursue. He has insisted that Britain must leave the EU on 31 October ‘do or die‘, and that in order to achieve this, he would countenance a no-deal Brexit, something that we’ve made clear would be harmful for charities and the communities they serve. He  described such a scenario as ‘a million-to-one against‘ and a ‘last resort‘, but said that it would be ‘absolute folly’ to rule it out. When it comes to his cabinet, he has claimed that only ministers committed to leaving the EU with or without a deal on 31 October will serve.

Many commentators therefore see his premiership as dramatically increasing the likelihood of a disorderly exit from the EU. During the campaign, he did not provide much more detail as to what his Brexit approach may be, relying on broad statements about his commitment to leaving in October. Now the contest is over, we may start to get a clearer idea of his approach, so charities should watch out for both official statements, and behind-the-scenes briefings.

It has become clear that Mr Johnson believes he can achieve a deal with the EU, even though the EU has been consistent in stating that there will be no renegotiation of the deal currently on offer. He has expressed a preference for a deal, but has also indicated that he is not willing to countenance any further extension to Article 50. He has suggested a range of solutions to the issues involved, many of which have been met with scepticism by experts.

Significantly, Mr Johnson has stated that his first act in office would be to launch a public information campaign to prepare the country for a no-deal Brexit.

What does it mean for Brexit?

As ever, it’s hard to predict any outcomes with much confidence during this volatile period. However, what is clear from Mr Johnson’s position is that the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October are certainly increasing, and is something that charities should be making contingency plans for. With the EU unwilling to offer any significant changes to the deal currently on offer and very little time left, it is difficult to see parliament passing any deal, even though some Labour MPs have indicated that they would now vote for a withdrawal agreement. Many MPs have declared their intention to stop a no-deal Brexit, but this may be beyond their gift as it remains the legal default.

With the mood in the EU hardening against the UK and a belief among many in Brussels that parliament will not pass any Brexit deal, experts such as Ivan Rogers believe a no-deal Brexit is now the ‘most likely outcome‘. The current Brexit secretary has taken a similar view. With Mr Johnson inheriting the same parliamentary deadlock and knife-edge majority that proved the undoing of Ms May, passing any legislation is going to be very tough. Uncertainty looks set to dominate, and the risk of the UK leaving the EU without a deal is more real than ever.

What next for charities?

NCVO has been clear about the risks of a no-deal Brexit, and has produced guidance for charities to aid their preparations for any Brexit scenario. With the chances of a no-deal Brexit greater than ever, it is vitally important that charities are thinking now about what they can do to prepare, particularly given the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent warnings of recession.

We will shortly be publishing further guidance on what a no-deal Brexit might mean for charities and what preparation work can be undertaken.

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Ben Westerman is a senior external relations officer at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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