Boris Johnson for Prime Minister, and Other Ways that the Brexit Mess Could Get Even Worse
“My goodness, talk about ignoring reality, Prime Minister—look at the benches behind you!” Ian Blackford, the parliamentary leader of the Scottish National Party, said to Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday, as she answered questions in the House of Commons. Those benches were filled with angry members of May’s own Conservative Party, whose main concern these days—beyond any legislative work, or Thursday’s European parliamentary election, or even the practical, as opposed to the rhetorical, business of Brexit—is how to get rid of May. Blackford said that May was “fooling no one but herself. . . . her time is up.” But she does know that her tenure is over, or just about. She is set to leave in June, with an explicit commitment to resign once she can get a bill to facilitate Brexit to the next stage, and with the expectation that she will also resign if the vote to do so fails, as it probably will. (This bill isn’t the actual withdrawal agreement with the E.U., which May negotiated and Parliament has rejected three times, but one that would make Brexit-related changes in U.K. law.) That’s not soon enough for a growing contingent in her party—and even in her cabinet. In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday morning, Michael Gove, her pro-Brexit environment minister, had to be prodded to commit to the idea that she would still be Prime Minister next Tuesday.
Alarmingly, Gove also used the interview to praise, of all people, Boris Johnson, saying, “I have huge admiration for him.” Johnson is openly campaigning for May’s job; last week, he said, “Of course I’m going to go for it.” He is seen as a serious contender, which, considering his record, is remarkable. Johnson’s braying denunciations of the European Union as a nest of risible foreigners who want to enslave the noble British and burden them with immigrants played a significant role in the success of the Brexit referendum, in 2016. After the Leave side won that vote, Johnson made a bid to become Prime Minister—and was undercut by Gove, who, having worked closely with Johnson, said that he didn’t think he was responsible enough to hold power. (The charge did have a pot-calling-kettle aspect to it, but that’s hard to avoid in Tory circles.) Johnson became the foreign secretary and treated that job as a mandate for diplomatic sabotage both abroad (reciting slightly misquoted lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem—“The temple-bells they say / ‘Come you back, you English soldier’ ”—in a Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar) and at home (responding, “Fuck business,” when confronted with industry concerns about Brexit). He quit as foreign secretary in 2018, blaming May’s handling of Brexit; one of his next moves was to write a column for the Telegraph saying that women wearing burqas resembled “letter boxes.” (Johnson, still a backbench M.P., added that, if a veiled constituent came to speak to him, he’d ask her to uncover her face.) On Wednesday, Gove said that, to his mind, Johnson had done a good job as foreign secretary and had generally graced the Conservative Party with his “flair, élan, distinction, and intellect.” Flair or a warning flare? Is a capacity for mockery mixed with a little Kipling an overriding qualification for the Conservative leadership now?
Under Britain’s system, May is the Prime Minister because she has the “confidence” of the Parliament, which means that she was able to get the support of a majority of M.P.s to form a government. In 2017, she called a snap general election in an attempt to strengthen her position, but she ended up weaker when the Conservatives didn’t win enough seats for an outright majority. Instead, she had to rely on ten M.P.s from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose main priority is keeping that region tied tightly to the rest of the U.K. Her need for the D.U.P. has, in some respects, made Brexit harder, because the most intractable issues involve the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, although those problems would be difficult to resolve anyway; there is a basic contradiction between Brexit and the U.K.’s commitments under the Good Friday peace accords that cannot be wished away with flair or élan.
If May loses a no-confidence vote in her party, or is otherwise displaced, or resigns as the Party leader, or loses a no-confidence vote called by the opposition in Parliament, she will no longer be Prime Minister. She already survived one no-confidence vote within the Party, last December, which, under Party rules, is supposed to give her immunity from another internal challenge of that kind for a year. But some in the Party want to change the rules. And, if her cabinet members turn on her openly, as opposed to in the back-stabbing, whispering way that they’re turning on her now, she may be forced to resign simply because, if she didn’t, her government would be reduced to an ineffectual farce. And yet, one might ask, could anything be a bigger farce than a Johnson government?
If May goes, the Conservative M.P.s will decide on two candidates for her job, and the wider membership will then get to vote—a process that could take time. There are many contenders: Dominic Raab, an M.P. who was May’s Brexit secretary but resigned because she wasn’t hard-line enough; the more centrist Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary; and, perhaps, Gove himself. Still, the nontrivial possibility that Johnson may indeed become Prime Minister—the Wall Street Journal referred to him as the “favorite”—is one of the many measures of the current reckless unseriousness of British politics. Another is the latest poll for Thursday’s European parliamentary election, which puts the purportedly governing Conservative Party at just seven per cent, and the principal opposition party, Labour, at thirteen. Nigel Farage’s carnival-populist Brexit Party is at thirty-seven per cent. (The Liberal-Democrats, in second place, managed nineteen per cent, representing a revival for that party, which wants to find a way to remain in the E.U.; right now, there are only eleven Lib-Dem M.P.s.) Another measure, closely related to all of the above, is the collective failure so far of the major parties to make use of the extension that the European Union gave them, until October 31st, to figure out what they want to do about Brexit. (The exit date was originally March 29th, then April 12th.) One of the premises of that extension was that Labour and the Conservatives would embark on cross-party talks. Those talks failed. The way that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, would prefer to resolve May’s leadership crisis is with a Parliamentary no-confidence vote, followed by a general election, and a Corbyn government.
On Tuesday, May gave it another shot, announcing what she presented as a bold compromise, but was actually more a jumble of commitments to really, really work things out later, maybe. For example, a law would be passed to require the government to come up with a solution on the Irish border, without specifying what that solution might be. And, she said, maybe there could be a vote in Parliament on another referendum. But first she wanted Parliament to move forward with her Brexit-facilitating bill, which she wants to bring to a vote for a second reading—a procedural stage—in the week of June 3rd. After her speech, the tally of M.P.s who supported her actually fell. When, after questions, she addressed Parliament about her bill, a majority of the Tory M.P.s left, including a number of her cabinet members; the benches that Blackford had told her to look at were now largely empty.
One problem for May is that what she listed, on Tuesday, as the dire prospects that her deal seeks to avoid—a chaotic, no-deal Brexit; a second referendum; a general election; “permanently polarized politics”—are things that various parties eagerly desire. There is no relief ahead for her. During the week that she wants Parliament to focus on her Brexit bill, she, or whoever is Prime Minister then, will also be preparing to host a visitor who is coming for D-Day commemorations and, no doubt, to make some noise of his own: President Donald Trump.