Analysis

Boris Johnson’s Exit: No One Wants to Be the Brexit Prime Minister

Following the resignation of two key ministers, Prime Minister Theresa May would normally be expecting a leadership challenge – but who wants to take the helm with the U.K. facing a post-Brexit economic crisis?

British Prime Minister Theresa May talking with then-Foreign Minister Boris Johnson at a NATO summit in Brussels, May 2017.
Matt Dunham/AP

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing the most serious political crisis of her two years in Downing Street, even worse than when she lost her party’s majority in last year’s parliamentary election.

The resignation of two senior cabinet ministers – Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis – on Monday is a direct challenge not only to her Brexit policy but to her leadership of the Conservative Party.

The party is now poised for an official announcement from Johnson that he is challenging May’s leadership. But he may not take the risk. He may be a popular leader with the party’s grassroots, but a leadership challenge is a lengthy process controlled by the parliamentary party, which first has to hold a no-confidence motion against May and then, if she loses, select the two candidates who will compete in a party-wide vote.

Johnson is much less popular with his fellow members of Parliament, who view him as a dangerous and selfish opportunist. And a gambler.

Unlike the now ex-Brexit Secretary Davis – an ideologue who believes with all his heart that Britain will be better off outside the European Union – Johnson has no firm beliefs. He is a dilettante and political weather vane: a British version of Israel’s Yair Lapid, only with an Eton and Oxford education and a sense of humor.

In February 2016, he sought the option that would advance his political career and wrote two drafts of his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph – one in favor of leaving the EU; the other for remaining. He agonized until the deadline. But his gamble on Brexit pinned him down. Once Davis, the true believer, announced that May’s “soft Brexit” policy is a betrayal of the 52 percent of British voters who voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, Johnson had no choice but to follow suit.

On Friday, he still tried to straddle both sides of the fence – or, as he once described his life philosophy, “I believe in having my cake and eating it.” At the outset of the special day-long cabinet meeting, he likened the proposed policy to “polishing a turd.” By evening, however, he had softened and even toasted the prime minister at dinner.

A man wearing a Boris Johnson mask has his British passport taken off him during a 'Borders Against Brexit' protest in Dundalk, Ireland, June 28, 2018.
\ CLODAGH KILCOYNE/ REUTERS

But immediately after the government’s proposal became public on Saturday, the volleys from the Tories’ pro-Brexit grassroots began.

May’s plan, accepted by her cabinet, envisages Britain continuing to abide by EU trade regulations so that it can continue doing business freely with Europe. But critics claimed this would reduce the United Kingdom to becoming a “vassal state.”

Davis could not stand it and resigned on Monday morning. Johnson could not allow someone else to become the figurehead of the “hard Brexit” camp, not after placing all his political capital on red.

But despite his burning ambition, Johnson could hesitate to sound the gun for a leadership challenge. If 48 Conservative MPs (15 percent of the parliamentary party) support such a call, May will face a no-confidence vote. But if she wins, she will remain in power with a year’s immunity from further challenge. And should she lose and be forced to resign, Johnson may not gain sufficient support to become one of the two candidates on the party ballot.

May has failed to keep a steady ship – losing the party’s parliamentary majority after calling a snap election last year, taking too long to come up with a coherent Brexit strategy and having ministers resign every few months. But she has shown a steely tenacity to keep going and seems determined to deliver some kind of Brexit, no matter what.

Few expect her to succeed in the negotiations with EU leaders and then in delivering a plan that will receive a parliamentary majority. And even if she crosses those hurdles in time for the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019, many – including Brexit supporters themselves – believe the country will be in for an economic hammering as major international businesses based in the United Kingdom relocate, or at the very least refrain from making new investments.

Even the most ambitious British politicians, who dream of entering 10 Downing Street and taking residence, quake at the prospect of having to drink daily from the poisoned Brexit chalice. May, the dutiful vicar’s daughter, seems resigned to continue carrying that burden, suffering for the reckless act of self-harm inflicted upon her country by the 17.4 million “Leave” voters.

After a tough day in Parliament on Monday, May was greeted with raucous cheering and the banging of tables when she finally addressed her party’s back-benchers. The Conservative MPs who control her political fate may not love her, and many of them disagree with her Brexit plan. But in the meantime, they are happy to continue letting her suffer for them.