Review and analysis by Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichen
Power struggle in London: will Russia remain the enemy?
Ostensibly the British wave of resignations stems from Britain’s exit from the EU: a few hours after the withdrawal of Brexit minister David Davis, another Brexit hardliner, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, also announced his resignation. British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of disagreements with both of them and quickly appointed successors. New Brexit Minister is Dominic Raab, the new Foreign Minister is former Health Minister Jeremy Hunt.
May, struggling since the election last year, had first prevailed after a long dispute last Friday in the Cabinet with her plans for a rather soft Brexit, but Sunday night, Davis protested with his resignation. He accused the head of government of weakening her country’s bargaining position in Brussels and of not fully implementing the voice of the voters.
May accepted the resignation of the minister early Monday morning. She thanked him “heartily” for his efforts, but firmly rejected his criticism. As successor, she appointed Raab, previously Secretary of State for Housing. The 44-year-old was initially for keeping the British in the EU, but then changed his mind and is now a convinced Brexit advocate.
The resignation of Johnson was not entirely unexpected: Already in April, Gaby Hinsliff had spoken in The Guardian of massive criticism from the intelligence services about Johnson. The rift with the services followed the Skripal affair. According to The Guardian, they were complaining that Johnson presented the authorship of Russia as a fact, although the British could not provide evidence. The services highlighted that May’s statement of “high probability” was more apt. There had been tension for some time between the secret services, whose chief boss was the Secretary of State, and Boris Johnson had for some time been getting on their nerves. The Telegraph reported in 2017 that the services do not trust Johnson.
Last November, The Daily Mail reported that British intelligence officials are wary of sharing information with Boris Johnson because they would not trust him as foreign minister. Even his staff in the State Department are dissatisfied with Johnson. The newspaper reported in October 2016 that this British Intelligence mistrust also applied to Brexit Secretary of State David Davis.
As an editor of The Spectator, Johnson published an article in 2001 exposing a secret service agent with the pseudonym “Smallbrow.” This concerned Daily Mail journalist Dominic Lawson.
With the unsubstantiated claim that Russians poisoned Skripal, Johnson “has given Putin a propaganda victory,” Gaby Hinsliff now writes in The Guardian.
In this context, the date of the resignation is noteworthy: Just one day after the British claimed that Russia was also responsible for the death of a woman who was allegedly poisoned with Novichok, the Foreign Minister leaves the command bridge. This is very unusual. If the intelligence agencies were convinced that they had material that was quite onerous against the Russians, the British government would have had to enter into a serious conflict with Moscow. Vacating the leadership at the height of battle is not really part of British traditions.
For Johnson, there was another problem: if it really was a poisoning campaign instigated by Russia, then the British services would have to explain how they lost track of events in their own country.
The Kremlin also sprinkled salt into the wound. Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov said on Monday that the events in the UK were very worrying as there was apparently a dangerous neurotoxin in circulation that citizens have to be protected from. Moscow offered to help London with the clearance.
For Britain, the recent, and rather mysterious incident came at an inopportune time. On Thursday, US President Donald Trump visits London, and a few days later has a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. So the British were faced with the dilemma of having to hit the Russians with heavy guns – just at the time when the most important ally with Putin wants to confer on the world situation.
So now the new Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt faces the difficult task of consistently articulating the position of the British. Brexit also plays a role here: the United Kingdom has always emphasized since Brexit that one of the reasons for leaving is that it wants to establish independent relations with all the countries in the world. Russia is important as an energy supplier to the UK, as is China, which is allied with Russia. After all, Jeremy Hunt, the former Minister of Culture, has a Chinese wife and should therefore bring some understanding of other cultures.
Johnson complained in his letter of resignation on the course of the Brexit negotiations. May’s plan for a close relationship between Britain and the EU after Brexit “amounts to the status of a colony.” Brexit should have been an opportunity to do things differently and to increase the particular advantages of Britain’s economic power, Johnson wrote. “This dream dies, suffocated by unnecessary self-doubt.”
May said in parliament Monday that there had been disagreements with Johnson and Davis over the right way out of the European Union. “We do not agree on what the best way is to meet our common commitment from the outcome of the referendum,” said May, referring to the British Brexit decision in June 2016.
In a letter to May published by Downing Street, Davis substantiated his choice to resign. He was particularly critical of the planned “common rulebook” for free trade with the EU. The European Union would control “large parts” of the UK economy, he warned.
That Davis had reservations about what he considered to be the Prime Minister’s too soft course, was known for some time. For months, rumors of the upcoming resignation of the 69-year-old were rampant. He did not want her fall, he told the BBC after his resignation. At a meeting of her party behind closed doors Monday, May reportedly obtained their support.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labor Party said the ministers had “left the sinking ship.” May had sought a strong negotiating mandate for Brexit in early elections in the past year, but instead lost her absolute majority. Since then she has been a member of a minority government.
The relationship with Russia was only indirectly mentioned in terms of the resignations. British media speculated whether British politicians should travel to Moscow if England reached the final of the World Cup. The second big speculation after the double resignation referred to the likelihood that Johnson’s return was just a matter of time and he actually wanted to overthrow May. The Washington Post considers this possible, but not likely. Johnson had spiked too many people in his term as foreign minister and furthermore left the impression of a volatile clown rather than that of a serious politician.