If Boris Johnson becomes the leader, the chances of a hard Brexit would increase, crashing out of the European Union without a deal.
Johnson’s timing could be bad. The European Parliament elections seems likely to deliver victory for the rightist Brexit Party and a defeat for the Tories and Labour.
May’s departure changes the scenery but does not alter Britain’s drift into a paralysing impasse that only a second referendum can resolve.
As Sherlock Holmes observed, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The impossible, in this case, has been Brexit. Theresa May, the British prime minister who announced her resignation Friday, turned the poisoned chalice of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union every which way in an attempt to make it palatable. She could not.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she famously intoned, without ever finding the courage or conviction to elaborate. This was a problem, given that the matter at hand was one of her country’s gravest peacetime decisions. Obstinacy, rather than some idea for Britain’s future, drove her. Britain had voted, almost three years ago now; she would be the delivery woman.
No matter that evidence of the negative impact of Brexit accumulated daily — slower growth, lower investment, lost banking jobs, factory closures — or that the United Kingdom might break up or that Parliament three times rejected May’s proposed deal or that democracies have been known to change their minds about mistakes: She would persevere, until even she had to concede quitting was in “the best interests of the country”.
So what, in Holmes’ formula, remains? What is the truth? A leadership contest will begin in May’s Conservative Party and the winner will become prime minister, with the task of resolving the Brexit debacle. Her most likely successor, given the extent of rabid pro-Brexit sentiment among Tories, is Boris Johnson, the unscrupulous, ramshackle, flip-flopping, dissembling former foreign secretary, whose uncertain relationship with the truth and unwavering narcissism resemble Donald Trump’s.
“He’s got what it takes,” Trump, who will visit Britain early in June, has ominously proclaimed of Johnson. The adulation has been reciprocated. Both are men gifted in the dark arts.
With Johnson as leader, the chances would increase of a hard Brexit — Britain crashing out of the European Union at the new deadline of October 31 without any arrangement to govern its future relationship with its neighbours. But Johnson has many enemies; and that scenario of supply chains severed, trucks piled up at Dover and Calais, British residents in Europe cast into limbo, and sheer administrative chaos at every level of finance, trade, industry and small business could lead some Tories to defect and renew the parliamentary impasse or bring down a Johnson government.
The centre is weaker than ever before in Britain. The political make-up of the country is in flux. The very survival of the country is in question, torn by intra-Irish tensions over the European Union and Scotland’s strong desire to stay in the union.
There are other candidates, including some like Home Secretary Sajid Javid or Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who are more committed to a deal with the union as the foundation for an orderly departure. But even as polls suggest many Britons have reconsidered their vote in 2016, and that a second referendum would reverse the result, the Conservative Party is being pushed relentlessly rightward by the jingoistic, right-wing faction that Johnson most vividly embodies. He has wanted to be prime minister for a very long time; he will do anything to get to Downing Street.
Still, Johnson’s timing could be bad. The European Parliament elections, which will conclude Sunday, seems likely to deliver victory for Nigel Farage’s rightist Brexit Party (driven by people angry that the March 29 Brexit deadline was missed) and a stinging defeat for both mainstream parties, the Tories and Jeremy Corbyn’s feckless Labour Party.
The centre is weaker than ever before in Britain. The political make-up of the country is in flux. The very survival of the country is in question, torn by intra-Irish tensions over the European Union and Scotland’s strong desire to stay in the union. The poison of Brexit keeps on giving for the simple reason that it makes no sense.
Johnson, if chosen, could try to call an early election to bolster his position for a hard Brexit, but Farage’s party will eat away at the Tory vote, and, in the words of Hugo Dixon, deputy chairman of a grassroots movement for a second referendum, “If Johnson opts for a pact with Farage, that would cause yet further havoc.”
One thing is certain: If there were a general election with Johnson leading the Tories and Corbyn in his Labour Party, as the mainstream alternative, many reasonable people in Britain would find themselves physically incapable of voting for either.
However improbable it was that a normally prudent nation would vote for self-amputation from a 46-year membership in a union of a half-billion Europeans that has brought it prosperity and influence, this happened. The consequences have proved impossible to manage. There is no parliamentary majority for any form of Brexit. You can’t fix stupid, as my colleague Tom Friedman has observed.
May’s departure changes the scenery but does not alter Britain’s drift into a paralysing impasse that only a second referendum can resolve. With the lies now uncovered, the reality revealed, the adrenaline dissipated, the British deserve a second chance to say what they want for themselves and the generations to come. It would not be a happy outcome, but sometimes, as in Holmes’ formula, life comes down to eliminating the alternatives.
— New York Times News Service
Roger Cohen is a columnist who writes on international affairs and diplomacy.