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Johnson wins race to become Britain’s next prime minister

Amir sends congratulations – Iran warns Boris it will ‘protect’ Gulf waters

LONDON: Boris Johnson won the race to become Britain’s next prime minister yesterday, heading straight into a confrontation over Brexit with Brussels and parliament, as well as a tense diplomatic stand-off with Iran. The former London mayor easily beat his rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in a vote of grassroots members of the governing Conservative Party. He is expected to be confirmed as prime minister today when Theresa May formally tenders her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II. US President Donald Trump was the first world leader to offer his congratulations, saying: “He will be great!”

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah also sent a cable of congratulations to Johnson on being appointed Britain’s new prime minister, wishing him every success. In the cable, HH the Amir extolled the “distinguished historic relations” between Kuwait and the United Kingdom. The Amir stressed that the two sides are looking forward to enhancing these relations and bilateral cooperation to achieve the interests of their nations. He wished Johnson good health and Britain further success and prosperity. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent similar cables.

It is a triumph for a man who has always coveted the premiership. But Johnson, known for his jokes and bluster, is taking over at a time of immense political upheaval. Three years after the referendum vote to leave the European Union, Britain remains a member amid continued wrangling in a divided parliament on how to proceed. Johnson led the referendum “Leave” campaign and – after May delayed Brexit twice – insists the latest deadline must be met, with or without a divorce agreement with the EU. “We’re going to get Brexit done on October 31,” he declared in a speech to party members in London, after winning 66 percent of almost 140,000 votes cast.

However, Brussels says it will not renegotiate the deal it struck with May to ease the end of a 46-year partnership – even after British MPs rejected it three times. EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said yesterday he wanted to work with Johnson “to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit”. Ursula von der Leyen, who will take over as head of the European Commission on Nov 1, congratulated Johnson but warned of “challenging times ahead of us”.
Although parliament dislikes May’s deal, Johnson faces significant opposition from MPs to his threat to leaving with no deal, including from Conservative colleagues. Several ministers said they will not serve under Johnson, warning that severing ties overnight with Britain’s closest trading partner is deeply irresponsible. But Johnson insisted he could change the atmosphere in parliament, saying: “Like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”

After addressing Conservative MPs privately following his victory, Johnson told reporters he was “impatient”. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said his speech “left everybody feeling good, and positive and cheerful.” One Brexiteer MP added: “The clouds have lifted.” However, Johnson’s premiership is vulnerable. His government will command a majority of just two – 320 votes to 318 – in parliament’s lower House of Commons.

Colleagues who disagree with Johnson are willing to give him a chance to get a Brexit deal, at least over parliament’s impending six-week summer recess. But if “no deal” looks likely in September, many MPs have vowed to stop him – a move that could trigger an early election. The main opposition Labour party is not expected to force a confidence vote this week, but challenged him to call an election.

However, both Labour and the Conservatives are struggling to appeal to a public deeply divided over Britain’s future, facing a pincer movement from Nigel Farage’s eurosceptic Brexit Party and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Business leaders called on Johnson to seek accord with Brussels, with Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry lobby, saying he “must not underestimate the benefits of a good deal”.

The pound bounced briefly higher before falling lower again to $1.24 after Johnson’s victory was announced. Outside parliament, where pro- and anti-Brexit protesters gather daily, reaction to Johnson’s victory was mixed. “It’s the most we can hope for,” said eurosceptic Michelle Pearce, 64, adding: “He’ll be brilliant or a disaster.” Ruth Fryer, 66, wearing a “bin Brexit” badge, added: “He’s a bit of a loose cannon and no one knows what he’ll do.”

Johnson’s domestic battles might initially have to take a backseat as he manages tensions with Iran. The Islamic republic seized a UK-flagged tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz last Friday. The stand-off comes amid escalating tensions between Iran and the United States over the Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted his congratulations to Johnson, saying: “I congratulate my former counterpart, @BorisJohnson on becoming UK PM. Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1,500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters and we will protect them.”

Iran has impounded the Stena Impero at its port of Bandar Abbas for allegedly breaking “international maritime rules”. In new footage aired by Iranian state television, the crew of 18 Indians, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino are seen sitting around a table and seemingly going about their daily routines. “Throughout history, Iran has been and will be the main guardian of security and free navigation” in the Gulf, President Hassan Rouhani said late Monday, adding that Tehran was not seeking to stoke tensions.

The head of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said in an interview published yesterday that his forces use drones to closely observe “all enemy ships” going through the Gulf, “especially America’s”. Tehran has been at loggerheads with Washington and its allies since May 2018, when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Iran said it would attend a meeting in Vienna this weekend with countries still party to the troubled accord. The meeting was requested by the European parties to discuss the “new situation”, Iran said, referring to its reduced nuclear commitments under the deal in response to the US withdrawal.

The EU confirmed Iran would meet envoys from the remaining parties – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – on Sunday. Tehran has already given up on complying with some of the deal’s limits on its nuclear program in retaliation for the US withdrawal and what it sees as the failure of other parties to help it circumvent sanctions.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi travelled to France to deliver a message from Rouhani to his counterpart Emmanuel Macron, his ministry said. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed he met the envoy who brought a message from Tehran. “We are now pushing Iran back into the Vienna agreement,” he said, referring to the nuclear deal. “I met earlier with President Rouhani’s special envoy to tell him that,” Le Drian added. Meanwhile, China described as “illegal” US sanctions imposed on its companies as part of Washington’s campaign against Iran. – Agencies

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