Boris Johnson is many things, including a freewheeling journalist turned liberal Tory mayor of London and a leading Brexit cheerleader turned gaffe-prone foreign secretary. One thing he most definitely is not is Theresa May. Stylistically, Britain’s new prime minister and his immediate predecessor couldn’t be more different.
With the completion of yesterday’s constitutional rituals—Queen Elizabeth II accepting the resignation of her 13th prime minister shortly before asking Johnson to become the 14th—the U.K. has swapped dutiful, if stubborn, managerialism for Brexit blue-sky thinking. In the early days of her premiership, May made a virtue of her preference for “just getting on with the job.” Her record in office—a failure to leave the EU on time, the loss of a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, and a pitiful domestic policy legacy—speaks for itself when it comes to the merits of that approach. The contrast with the ebullient Johnson is stark. Yesterday, outside 10 Downing Street, the new prime minister declared that “after three years of unfounded self-doubt,” it was time to “change the record” and prove wrong the “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters.”
Earlier this week, in his acceptance speech after a commanding victory over Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership election, Johnson summarized his goals with the acronym DUDE: deliver Brexit; unite the country; defeat Labour’s far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn; and energize Britain. Few Conservatives would quibble with those objectives, but plenty have their doubts about Johnson’s ability to deliver them. Of his aims, making good on the referendum result of 2016 by taking Britain out of the EU is the most important—and the most difficult.
After May’s failure to win Parliament’s support for her Brexit deal, Britain missed its planned departure date earlier this year, and the country is now due to leave the EU at the end of October. That leaves just 98 days for Johnson to resolve the biggest peacetime crisis in recent British political history. In the last few months, Johnson has established numerous red lines, the most significant being a commitment to a Halloween departure, “do or die, come what may.” It echoes a promise broken by May, who, throughout her fraught negotiations with European leaders, repeatedly told the British people that “no deal was better than a bad deal.” She was just as unequivocal as Johnson about leaving the EU on time before balking at the opportunity to do so. May’s waffling unleashed a tsunami of populist sentiment, propelling the newly formed Brexit party to victory and relegating the Conservatives to fifth place in European elections that Britain was not even supposed to participate in earlier this summer. The importance of making good on the promise to leave is clearer to Johnson than it appears to have been to his predecessor—but can he succeed where May failed?
Success requires pulling off one of two unlikely feats. Johnson’s preferred option involves securing a better deal with the EU, but Brussels has shown no sign of contemplating anything but the most cosmetic changes to the present one. And, even with Johnson’s enthusiastic backing, a slightly altered deal probably won’t win Parliament’s approval.
Failing a successful renegotiation, Johnson is willing to abide a no-deal Brexit—the potential economic consequences ranging from apocalyptic to suboptimal, depending on whose assessment you listen to. Johnson stands in the more optimistic camp. This week, he said, “yes—there will be difficulties, though I believe that with energy and application they will be far less serious than some have claimed.”
But Johnson’s can-do attitude cannot overcome cold, hard parliamentary arithmetic. The government’s effective majority in the House of Commons is down to just two seats and depends on the support of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s ruthlessly transactional Democratic Unionist Party. Add to that fragile formula the Remain-supporting Conservative MPs, who have threatened to withdraw their support for the government if it pursues a Brexit plan that they oppose. It’s far from clear how long Johnson can maintain support in the House of Commons.
If he pursues a no-deal Brexit, he is all certain to lose his majority. MPs overwhelmingly oppose it, though constitutional experts differ on their ability to stop it. Regardless, Johnson will pay for facilitating such an outcome with his job—making him one of Britain’s shortest-serving prime ministers.
Calling an election—though a risky move, given the Conservatives’ recent nose-dive in opinion polls—may well be Johnson’s least-bad option. Indeed, if the numbers mean that an election is inevitable, the prime minister might want to hold one on his own terms before the reality of his predicament has taken the wind out of the sails of his optimistic message. Early signs point in this direction. Johnson wasted no time making the kind of retail-politics pledges that coincide with having to face the voters. In his first speech as prime minister, he committed to hire 20,000 new policemen, upgrade 20 hospitals, and boost school funding. One can almost hear the election flyers being printed. A wholesale clear-out of the cabinet, as well as the recruitment of key figures from the team that delivered the 2016 Brexit victory, add to the picture of a prime minister taking a war footing.
It was the voters who started the Brexit process, when 17.5 million Brits shocked the world three years ago. Perhaps Boris Johnson has determined that the only way out of the situation he has inherited is to let them decide how it should end.
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