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Will Boris Johnson press for UK entry into TPP?

If the prime minister achieves Brexit, he will need closer ties with Japan

Theresa May has been replaced as British prime minister by Boris Johnson, one of the leave campaign's big champions.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Type "boris, cameron, oxford" into Google, and a sepia photo appears showing a group of young men wearing bow ties, dark suits and black shoes. It is a commemorative photo of University of Oxford students belonging to the Bullingdon Club.

As the search results show, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom who took office on Wednesday, and David Cameron, the prime minister before Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, were members of the club at the same time. Bullingdon is an exclusive all-male dining club that goes back some 240 years. It is only open to students of posh families with aristocratic pedigrees.

Club members discuss philosophy and history, and collect donations for the economically disadvantaged. They usually get off lightly when they drink heavily, smoke marijuana and vandalize the pubs that host them.

Johnson, leader of the Conservative Party, served as mayor of London before returning to the House of Commons in 2015. London is a cosmopolitan city with large numbers of transplants from other EU member states as well as immigrants from the U.K.'s former Asian and African colonies, Commonwealth of Nations. Although it is the Labor Party's electoral power base, Johnson served as mayor for two four-year terms, testifying to his popularity there.

Born in New York, Johnson had U.S. and U.K. citizenship but abandoned his U.S. documents when he was picked as May's foreign secretary. It is not widely known that his father served as a bureaucrat of the European Commission, the Brussels-based executive branch of the EU, and as a member of the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, France.

While Johnson is either enthusiastically liked or disliked by voters, he is one of the few populist politicians who are called by their first names.

Boris and Cameron first met at Eton, a prestigious private boys school in the U.K., and became close friends. But in the 2016 referendum on whether the U.K. should withdraw from the EU, Boris was a champion of leave while Cameron captained the opposing team.

It is questionable whether the two leaders have fully parted ways; both are traditionalists of the Conservative Party, which maintains its distance from the EU.

Boris and Cameron often engaged each other in debate at Eton and Bullingdon, a political journalist remembered after British voters decided to Brexit. Debate, the journalist continued, is a game in which the combatants wield rhetoric, and the polemics of the Brexit referendum campaign might have been the latest round in the two men's decades-old verbal sparring match.

Margaret Thatcher

The political thoughts entertained by Boris and Cameron belong to a generation that was under the tutelage of Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1970s revived the U.K. from its economic stagnation, or "the British disease," as it was known. She fought hard to push through bold structural reforms, according to a veteran lawmaker of the opposition Labor Party.

Thatcher said in a speech in 1988 before the collapse of the Soviet Union, "It is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the center, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the center, some in the community [the European Community, the EU's predecessor] seem to want to move in the opposite direction.

"We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels."

In another speech that year, Thatcher said, "Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, U.K. as U.K., each with its own customs, traditions and identity." In the present-day context, the remark is taken as aimed at insinuating EU bureaucrats' dominance.

Boris idolizes Winston Churchill and wrote a biography of the World War II-era prime minister, "The Churchill Factor," published in 2014, when Boris was the mayor of London.

In an essay contributed to a British newspaper before the start of World War II, Churchill said, "We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed."

There is no denying that Boris' political deeds are both openly and covertly under the influence of the political thought put forward by Churchill and Thatcher.

For Japan, a question is whether the new British prime minister can achieve Brexit while protecting the economic interests of his globalized nation and of its allies.

The Japanese edition of Boris Johnson's "The Churchill Factor" was released in 2016.

During a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, May called Japan a "quasi ally." As Brexit will tear the U.K.'s economic ties with the EU, the U.K. will seek to tighten its relations with the U.S. and other former colonies as well as with Japan.

Boris will have no other choice but to opt for a similar policy stance. At meetings with Boris on such occasions as the summit of Group of Seven leaders in Paris in August, Abe will likely propose that Japan form closer economic ties with the U.K. while warning that a Brexit without a deal with the EU would greatly slow foreign direct investment in the country from Japan.

Boris, when he was foreign secretary, once swigged a can of peach juice from Fukushima Prefecture that was recommended to him by his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono. He drank it despite unfavorable rumors about farm products from the prefecture in the wake of the triple meltdown in 2011. The new prime minister understands Japan's economic and security positions, and is expected to propose that the U.K. participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade arrangement.

It should be noted that Boris does not hesitate to make untrue statements.

During general elections in 2010 and 2015, the English branch office of the Conservative Party interviewed candidates before choosing which ones to back for single-seat constituencies. The candidates were asked whether they were EU skeptics or Brexit hard-liners. In many cases, the party endorsed hard-liners and later ended up with 80 to 100 House of Commons members who were Brexit hard-liners.

Leading the group of hard-liners, Boris prepared a demagogic advertisement saying that leaving the EU would save the U.K. 350 million pounds ($435 million) which would be used to upgrade the National Health Service. The ad was wrapped around buses and run across England.

England overwhelmingly voted to leave, the reverse of how Scotland and Northern Ireland voted.

Boris is much better than other politicians at reading popular sentiment. He first thinks of what voters prefer before what is right.

The prime minister might see more light ahead if he were to reverse this old train of thought.

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