“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told a group of conservative listeners Wednesday night. For most of continental Europe, this would likely involve images of chaos, disaster, shattered alliances.
But for Britain’s top diplomat, in comments leaked to BuzzFeed News, “there is method in [Trump’s] madness” that could serve as a role model for Johnson’s side of the Atlantic.
“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson said. “Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard. … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
The British Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The intervention essentially pits Johnson against his boss, Prime Minister Theresa May, who is pursuing a more low-key and cautious path. Adopting a Trump approach may also be difficult for May because she has been one of the victims of his style herself.
Europe’s three most powerful leaders — French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and May — are expected to find themselves on the same side of the negotiation table on Friday at the Group of Seven meeting in Canada, united against Trump. Referring to their dispute over tariffs and the Iran nuclear deal, Macron warned Thursday that the U.S. president may be isolated at the meeting.
Advocating for a leadership model that has alienated some of the United States’ closest allies may not be the strategy you would expect coming out of a country that is heralding the vision of a “global Britain” after its eventual exit from the European Union.
At least one member of May’s cabinet, Finance Minister Philip Hammond, openly confronted Johnson over his remarks on Friday, saying: “My experience has been that … a collaborative approach … is generally more productive than a confrontational approach.”
But Johnson, of course, is not your ordinary foreign secretary. While already in office, the conservative politician once said that it would take too long to apologize for the “rich thesaurus” of insults he has thrown at world leaders. In 2016, for instance, he wrote a poem in which he called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “terrific wankerer.”
Johnson has offended a few more world leaders since, but project Brexit — which Brexiteers hope will make Britain a force to reckon with again — is continuing undeterred. Or at least it was, until recently.
Negotiations with the European Union have faltered, as May is facing a divided cabinet over the country’s post-Brexit customs and Irish border plans. The two most divisive issues are linked, as the United Kingdom may have to stay in the European Union customs union or even the single market if it wants to avoid a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. May wants to avoid border checks to prevent a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland and to satisfy her political allies there, whom she needs in order to stay in power.
Brexiteers fear that May could eventually settle on what appears to be the easiest option: staying in the single market, which would force Britain to abide by E.U. rules, even though it would no longer have the power to shape them. That solution would raise the question of why Britain has exposed itself to years of negotiations only to acknowledge that it may not be as self-reliant as it had hoped it could be.
Meanwhile, “remainers” fear that Brexiteers’ resistance to compromise with the E.U. could lead to a breakdown in talks with the European Union — potentially resulting in a “no-deal” Brexit. Some more apocalyptic studies predict that this could result in widespread chaos, with flights grounded, trade coming to a near-standstill and Britain running out of medical supplies and food within weeks. (In the leaked recording, Johnson ridiculed warnings over border disruptions as “pure millennium bug stuff.”)
The damage would not be limited to Britain, though. It would also affect continental Europe, which is why Johnson appeared to advocate risking a breakdown in talks. It would be a kind of a “no-deal Brexit threat,” inspired by Trump’s cancellation of the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his reversal of that decision only a week later.
“You’ve got to face the fact there may now be a meltdown. OK?” Johnson said, according to BuzzFeed.
“I don’t want anybody to panic during the meltdown. No panic. Pro bono publico, no bloody panic. It’s going to be all right in the end.”