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On Brexit, can new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson succeed where Theresa May failed?

Boris Johnson, one of Britain’s most eccentric and recognizable politicians, will become its next prime minister. The former mayor of London beat fellow Conservative Jeremy Hunt to take on what some say is the country’s greatest challenge since World War II: exiting the European Union. Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote reports and Amna Nawaz talks to Anand Menon of King’s College London.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, three years of tumult in the U.K. took yet another turn today, as Boris Johnson was elected Conservative leader to replace Theresa May as prime minister. Mrs. May was a casualty of the chaos sparked by Britons' vote to leave the E.U.

    From London, special correspondent Ryan Chilcote begins our coverage.

  • Question:

    Is this your dream job at a nightmare time, Mr. Johnson?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    He's one of Britain's most eccentric and recognizable politicians, from his trademark mop of blonde hair to his knack for turning mundane public events into comedy.

    The new Conservative Party leader, and thus incoming British prime minister, beat out Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, winning two-thirds of the vote from about 160,000 of his fellow Conservatives.

  • Boris Johnson:

    We are going to unite this amazing country. And we are going to take it forward. I will work flat out from now on with my team that I will build, I hope, in the next few days, to repay your confidence. But, in the meantime, the campaign is over and the work begins.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    The 55-year-old Johnson served as mayor of London and preceded Hunt as foreign secretary under the woman he replaces. He will now inherit what some are calling Britain's biggest challenge since World War II: exiting the European Union.

    Even so, he maintained his optimism today in London with his trademark bravado.

  • Boris Johnson:

    I say to all the doubters, dude, we are going to energize the country. We're going to get Brexit done on October 31. We are going to take advantage of all the opportunities, that it will bring in a new spirit of can-do.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May's efforts to secure a Brexit deal were soundly rejected by Parliament three times, ultimately leading her to step down. She's pledged to give her full support to her successor.

    Johnson was one of the country's most vocal advocates for leaving the E.U. during the country's 2016 referendum, striking a populist tone. Critics, though, call him an opportunist. He reportedly prepared speeches supporting both potential outcomes in that vote.

    Johnson could attempt to amend the U.K.'s withdrawal agreement with the E.U. and push that through Parliament, even though the E.U. has repeatedly insisted it's not open to renegotiating. Failing that, he's threatening to pull out of the bloc without a deal, even though the U.K.'s official economic watchdog has warned a no-deal Brexit would plunge the British economy into a recession.

    Most members of the House of Commons, including many members of his own party, oppose leaving without a deal. At the same time, Johnson faces a separate uphill battle to gain the public's trust and confidence after a string of gaffes and offensive comments.

  • Patricia Sheerin:

    He's very much like Trump. He says one thing one day and another thing the next. He really has no regard for politics or the people at all.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Back in the U.S., President Trump tweeted his congratulations to Johnson, and added, "He will be great."

    Johnson officially becomes prime minister tomorrow after a formal handover of power — Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ryan, on the top of Boris Johnson's priority list has to be Brexit, right? Theresa May tried and failed to negotiate a deal. Is there any sign that Boris Johnson can succeed where Theresa May failed?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    It's going to be tough.

    Look, there's only two ways to do it. One is to go back to the European Union and renegotiate the deal that Theresa May reached with the E.U. So far, they're saying that they're not going to renegotiate anything. In fact, their chief negotiator today tweeted that he looks forward to facilitating the ratification of the deal, meaning the deal that they already have.

    So, it doesn't look like there's much of a window there. The other thing he could do is, of course, on October the 31st, in 100 days' time, as he has promised, he could take the U.K. out of the E.U. without a deal. That's the default position if he doesn't get it ratified in Parliament.

    The only problem there is that many of the people in Parliament are very against that idea. They think that it would be economically very damaging for this country for that to happen. And even within his own party, many of them say they will fight him if he tries to do that.

    That leaves him just one more option. And that's to call a general election and hope that next batch of parliamentarians that get voted in, A, support the Conservative Party and, B, support his plan for Brexit. Both of those are not a given.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ryan, it's notable that President Trump was actually one of the first to congratulate Boris Johnson. So, where do you see the relationship between those two countries, the U.S. and the U.K., going from here?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Well, Boris Johnson will certainly appreciate that. The U.K. needs a trade deal with the United States. President Trump has said he wants to do a trade deal with the U.K.

    It's particularly important, given the fact that the U.K. is planning to leave the European Union. That said, I think Boris Johnson will be perhaps leery of getting too buddy-buddy with President Trump. President Trump is not particularly popular in the United Kingdom.

    He was here about a month ago, and, if you will remember, the polls then said that only about one in five people in the U.K. support his policies. And even in the Conservative Party that Boris Johnson leads, they lean a little bit further to the left, maybe perhaps closer to the Democrats, than the Republican Party.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Ryan Chilcote reporting for us in London.

    Thanks, Ryan.

    Let's take a deeper look now at what Boris Johnson's rise to prime minister means for the future of the United Kingdom.

    Anand Menon is professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College in London.

    Anand Menon, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you. You saw Ryan Chilcote's report there. Same question, just to get your take. When it comes to Brexit, is there any chance that Boris Johnson could succeed and negotiate a deal?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, I very much agree with Ryan, in the sense that the problem is, we have a new prime minister, but the structural constraints remain exactly as they were under Theresa May.

    There are three options when it comes to Brexit. We leave with a deal, we leave without a deal, or we stay in the European Union. And we have a Parliament within which there is no majority for any of those outcomes. None of that has changed.

    So we wait with interest to see if there's anything that Prime Minister Johnson can do to shift the dial on that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But when you look specifically at what Johnson has said in the past, can you walk us through where he disagreed with the deal that Theresa May had negotiated?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, the first thing that is worth saying is that, ultimately, at the third time of asking, Boris Johnson voted for Theresa May's deal.

    So one of the possibilities, I suppose, is that he comes back to Parliament with something that looks very much like the deal that she negotiated, tries to claim that he's made some significant difference to it, and tries to get it through again.

    In the campaign for the leadership, however, he changed his tune a little bit. And he said that what he wants to do is get rid of this infamous Irish backstop. The Irish backstop exists to prevent the need for a border on the island of Ireland between the north and the south.

    And it does so by keeping the whole of the United Kingdom within some E.U. rules and inside the U.S. customs union that limits our ability after Brexit to sign trade deals. He wants that scrapped.

    The problem is that the European Union is showing absolutely no willingness whatsoever to go along with that. They're saying the only deal on the table is the deal that Theresa May negotiated. And that includes the backstop.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth noting, as Ryan mentioned in his report, Johnson doesn't have a Conservative majority in Parliament. He needs a coalition to move anything forward.

    How does that dynamic inform how he's likely to act?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, since the election of 2017, one of the problems that the Conservative Party has faced is that they are dependent for their majority in Parliament on the Democratic Unionist Party.

    And the Democratic Unionist Party, of course, have specific interest when it comes to the politics of Northern Ireland. It looks very much as if Prime Minister Johnson is going to turn to the DUP again for their help. And, of course, in so doing, what that means is that any kind of backstop that looks like Northern Ireland has a slightly different status to the rest of the United Kingdom will be unacceptable to them.

    So, as Ryan said, one option facing Mr. Johnson is to have a general election and try and change the numbers in Parliament. The problem there is that politics in the United Kingdom at the moment is so febrile, is so unpredictable, so many M.P.s with what usually would have been considered safe majorities of 10,000, 15,000 now say they feel losing their seats, that that would be a real gamble.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Johnson, it's worth noting, was also the foreign secretary for a while.

    From what he's said from, what he's done in the past, do you expect Britain's foreign policy moving forward to be very different to the way it's been in the past?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, for first thing, let me say, it is worth stressing to an American audience just the degree to which Brexit dominates everything in this country.

    And Brexit yet dominated the leadership election, to the exclusion of virtually everything else. So we haven't heard much on foreign policy.

    What I would say is that the new prime minister, as soon as he enters Downing Street, which we expect to be sometime tomorrow afternoon, faces a foreign policy dilemma, which is Iran.

    Now, as you know, the United States has decided that Iran is in breach of its obligations under the nuclear deal. The Europeans, for their part, are saying they're not. To date, the United Kingdom has stuck with the Europeans, saying they want to preserve the nuclear deal.

    Now, that presents Mr. Johnson with an immediate problem. On the one hand, as we heard from Ryan earlier, the Brexiters think that a trade deal with the United States is a necessary way forward once we leave the European Union.

    On the other hand, policy to date has been to stick with the Europeans, in — sort of in opposition to the United States in policy on IraCHANGING OF THE GUARD – 30 DAYSn. And that is a dilemma that Mr. Johnson is going to face from his first day in office. What is he going to choose? We just don't know.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We only have 30 seconds left, but I do want to make something clear here.

    Are you basically saying that, because Brexit is such an enormous deal, because he must deal with it, because he's stepping into exactly the same conditions that Theresa May left behind, could Boris Johnson have a similar fate to Theresa May?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, the amazing thing about British politics at the moment is, we simply do not know what is going to happen.

    It is quite possible that he will try and get a deal through and fail, absolutely, because the numbers aren't there in Parliament. At that point, we don't know. There is still the possibility Boris Johnson ends up being the shortest-serving British prime minister of all time, because he has to survive until November to avoid that fate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Anand Menon from King's College in London, thank you very much for joining us.

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