Boris Johnson On The Rise In Race For Conservative Party Leader
Boris Johnson seems to be the leader in the race to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader. Whether that's a good thing is another question.
Theresa May’s announcement that she would be stepping aside as Conservative Party leader on June 7th, and would step down as Prime Minister upon the selection of a new party leader. That process, which involves a two-step process that includes a vote by Tory MP’s to narrow the list of contenders down to two contenders and then a contest between those two top among registered members of the party, will take up to six weeks to resolve. Already, though, it’s apparent that former London Mayor and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the man to beat:
LONDON — Only one person, the joke doing the rounds in Parliament goes, can stop the disheveled, blond-haired, crowd-pleasing former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, from becoming the country’s next prime minister.
That is Mr. Johnson himself.
One of Britain’s most recognizable, and now most divisive politicians, Mr. Johnson has a history of verbal gaffes, a poor record as a minister and many enemies in Parliament, not to mention among the voters who reject Brexit, which he helped persuade Britons to embrace in a 2016 referendum.
But his charisma, flair for publicity and record of winning two elections as mayor of London make him the runaway favorite in a crowded field to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May, according to bookmakers.
A victory for Mr. Johnson would have significant repercussions and could increase the prospects of Britain hurtling out of the European Union without an agreement at the end of October, despite the potentially dire economic consequences.
It also sets up a possible constitutional showdown with Parliament, which has shown that the one thing it can agree on is that there should never be a no-deal Brexit. If Britain’s new prime minister — whoever it is — was willing to exit the bloc without a deal, it is unclear if Parliament would have the power to stop the move, according to constitutional scholars.
“A new leader will have the opportunity to do things differently and have the momentum of a new administration,” Mr. Johnson said on Friday, according to Reuters, illustrating why Britain could be headed into turbulent waters. “We will leave the E.U. on October 31, deal or no deal. The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal.”
Not only is Mr. Johnson a firm proponent of Brexit — albeit one who is instinctively more flexible than Mrs. May — but several European Union leaders have hinted they regard the idea of dealing with him as a nightmare come true. They likely will be loath to make him any concessions.
As a child Mr. Johnson famously announced his ambition to become “world king,” and even if the job he now seeks is not quite that, the stars could be aligning for him.
There is no shortage of other contenders should Mr. Johnson falter.
The field is crowded because Conservative lawmakers use leadership contests to raise their profiles and put down markers for the future, or to amass a bloc of votes that they can use in bargaining with front-runners for future jobs.
Under its leadership rules, Conservative Party lawmakers will whittle down probably around a dozen candidates to a shortlist of two. Party members, who are thought to number around 120,000, will then choose the winner.
Mr. Johnson is wildly popular among them, judging by his reception at party conferences, so the assumption is that if he can get onto the shortlist then he will win the keys to 10 Downing Street.
While the Conservative Party is badly split on the Brexit issue, the serious contenders are likely to argue that if Mrs. May’s unpopular Brexit plan cannot be renegotiated, Britain should be willing to leave without any agreement, despite potentially dire economic consequences.
Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab, who both resigned from the cabinet over Brexit, are likely to run, as is Penny Mordaunt, another Brexit hard-liner who recently became Britain’s first female defense secretary, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary.
More moderate contenders are likely to include the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary Matt Hancock, the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, and the home secretary, Sajid Javid.
Some analysts have suggested the Conservatives may turn to a more moderate candidate, like Mr. Hunt, who in the 2016 referendum supported remaining in the bloc, like Mrs. May, but who has in recent months tried to burnish his hard-Brexit credentials.
But Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, said the party had come to regret asking Mrs. May, a formerly anti-Brexit lawmaker, or Remainer, to achieve the ultimate anti-Europe outcome, leaving the bloc.
“They have tried to deliver a Leave project with a Remainer. It has not gone well at all,” Mr. Goodwin said. “I don’t think the Conservative Party — Parliamentary party or membership — will make that mistake again.”
Many are also looking for a campaigner to lead them into a next general election that, given the Brexit deadlock, could come soon, pitching them into battle both with Mr. Farage, to their right, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to their left.
Johnson is the odds-on favorite. Like Joe Biden in the United States, Johnson’s campaigning as if he will soon govern. Johnson said Friday, in Switzerland: “We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.” The Financial Times signaled lukewarm openness to a Johnson cabinet Friday, if only to stave off a victory by hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Siding with the Leave campaign because his great rival, former chancellor George Osborne, backed Remain and then failing for two and a half years to come up with a plan for what leaving the EU would involve, was monstrously irresponsible,” Camilla Cavendish wrote in an editorial. “Yet it is precisely that opportunism, a willingness to tack with the wind, which makes Mr Johnson so capable of reinvention.”
What Britain doesn’t have is time—time to further dither on Brexit, time for a protracted Conservative Party leader contest, and little time to prepare for a likely raucous visit by President Donald Trump. A state dinner in London is to be held June 3. Corbyn has already boycotted the controversial occupant of the White House. It will fall on May—who Trump has quarreled with—and her presumably anointed successor to host the American leader, who is bringing all of his adult children with him, including White House senior counselors Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Media reports emphasize that Johnson and Trump are tight, spiritual kindreds even. A former senior administration official emphasizes to me that the story is far more complicated.
As noted, this isn’t the first time that Johnson has seemed to be on the verge of achieving his obvious dream of becoming Prime Minister. Just three years ago, when David Cameron stepped aside as Conservative Party leader due to the results of the Brexit referendum, Johnson was among the top contenders for the position of Tory leader. Instead, he ended up abruptly pulling out of the race, a move that effectively removed the last remaining impediment to Theresa May becoming head of the party and leading to a quicker than expected at the time process to pick a successor to Cameron. Instead of Prime Minister, Johnson had to settle for the post of Foreign Secretary, a position he held until resigning last year as part of the rebellion inside of May’s Cabinet regarding the direction of Brexit negotiations.
The difference between Johnson’s failed bid for party leadership three years ago and today, of course, is the extent to which the Brexit situation has spiraled out of control for May, largely because of her own inability to stay in line with a Conservative Party that has become far more pro-Brexit than it was three years ago. It was clear that things were not going well when, in a historic rebuke, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that May had negotiated with the E.U. over the course of the past two and a half years. That rejections shook British politics to its core and led to an intra-party challenge to May’s leadership that could have led to her ouster. May survived that vote, but was clearly weakened by it and this made her ability to put together a Brexit plan that Parliament would accept.
As things stand, the European Union has given the United Kingdom until October 31st to come up with a Brexit deal acceptable to both parties. Originally, of course, the deadline was supposed to be on March 29th, but when it became clear as that date approached that there would be no deal approved by Parliament, the E.U. negotiators acceded to requests from May to extend the deadline. At first, the deadline was extended to mid-April but that was quickly extended another six months when it was clear that there was no way that May would be able to come close to a deal that would clear Parliament in time. This extension came after the E.U. leadership had initially balked at the idea of extending the deadline, but the domestic political situation in the United Kingdom made it clear that a mid-April deadline was impractical. Additionally, May said in late March that she would leave office once a Brexit Deal is complete. Now, of course, she will be leaving the office with the details of Brexit still very much up in the air, leaving it to her successor to come up with a solution to a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
Additionally, this period has seen the rise of a new pro-Brexit force in the form of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which is in many ways the successor to UKIP, the party he formed roughly a decade ago when someone who favored Britain leaving the E.U. was seen as a political gadfly. According to current polling, Farage’s party is expected to perform very well in the European Parliament elections that were conducted in the United Kingdom on Thursday. Additionally, other polling has shown the Brexit Party in a fairly strong third place in hypothetical General Election polling. If, as expected, the Brexit Party outperforms the Tories in the E.U. elections then that will likely enure to the benefit of pro-Brexit leaders in the Conservative Party, of which Johnson is by far the loudest voice.
Johnson, of course, does not come without his own degree of controversy. Between various aspects of his past and his bombastic style (not to mention his haircut) he has often been referred to as a British version of Donald Trump. While the analogy is not a perfect one, it isn’t very far off either. Much like Trump, Johnson has relied quite often on a populist message to rally supporters behind him, and he seems to share many of Trump’s views on the European Union and other issues. Where May and Trump often clashed both in public and in private, one imagines that a Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump would get along quite nicely.. While that may bode well for the continuation of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, it may also signal policy changes in both nations that will not be good in the long term.
In any event, the stars seem to be aligning for Boris Johnson this time around. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question.