The British Conservative Party leadership contest is scheduled to continue for another six weeks. But that will likely be just a formality after today’s first-round vote in Parliament. Boris Johnson’s overwhelming lead means he’s almost certainly going to be Britain’s next prime minister — which could be just what Britain needs.
The Tory leadership contest is fought in two arenas. The first is that of Parliament, where the 313 Conservative members whittle down the contenders over a series of votes to a final two. Those two then campaign among the registered, dues-paying Tory members for the activists’ favor. The winner of that second round becomes the new leader, and hence the new prime minister.
Johnson wiped the floor with his contenders in today’s parliamentary vote. He received a whopping 114 votes, a massive haul considering he had nine opponents. His support is so large that it exceeds that of his next three highest-ranking challengers combined. The London bookies, who make markets on everything, have dutifully placed the odds on his win at 83 percent. Given Johnson’s massive popularity with the Tory activists, it would take either a stunning misstep or machinations that would amaze even Machiavelli to trip him up.
The state of affairs across the pond, however, is such that this will likely be the easiest challenge Johnson faces. The Brexit mash-up is transforming British politics almost daily. Polls show millions of Tory voters are abandoning the historic party for Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party, while millions of Labour voters are abandoning their party for either Brexit or for a more unequivocally pro-European Union alternative, either the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. Johnson’s task is to bring about Brexit, hopefully without embracing the no-deal scenario, reunite his party and put a stake in Farage’s heart once and for all — all by year’s end.
Johnson so far has avoided providing too many specifics on how he will do all of that. He has said both that he does not want to leave the E.U. with no deal and that he will ensure the United Kingdom leaves by the statutory departure date of Oct. 31. What happens if he is unable to broker a revised deal with the E.U. leadership or if an end run around them with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a summer summit fails? Then he will have to choose between the two promises; either choice will provoke outrage and fury within Parliament.
At that point, he will almost certainly choose the no-deal option because the alternative would be the Conservative Party’s death. The Brexit Party’s stunning rise is due entirely to the inability of the Tories under Theresa May to keep their promise to leave the E.U. on March 29. Crossing two lines in the sand would probably seal their fate with the once-loyal Tory masses who care more about leaving than they do about other Conservative priorities.
That in turn would spark a series of messy parliamentary maneuvers to prevent such an occurrence. Ten Conservative MPs defied the party whip yesterday and voted for a Labour motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Would more follow suit if Johnson fails to get a better deal?
Then there’s the question of proroguing Parliament, thereby temporarily preventing it from sitting. It is within the queen’s constitutional power to do so upon the advice of her ministers. Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued his country’s Parliament in 2008 to prevent a three-party coalition from toppling his government. Such a move would be unusual, but Johnson has not yet ruled it out.
The sheer historic instability in the country may be Johnson’s biggest ally. Labour does not want a quick general election — which a vote of no confidence to prevent a no-deal scenario would require — any more than the Tories do. Nor presumably do many of the Tory opponents of no-deal relish the likely prospect of losing their seats in such an event. Self-interest may prevail even over genuine beliefs about the national interest if MPs are forced to choose.
Johnson in effect will likely be playing a two-sided game of chicken this year: against the E.U. on the one hand and parliamentary Remainers on the other. Who will blink first? No one knows.
There was another time in British history when a controversial and colorful figure with a journalistic past and many political failures took the helm in stormy times. Winston Churchill was almost nobody’s first choice for prime minister but was chosen when there seemed to be no other viable alternative. Johnson has none too subtly written a biography of the great statesman, intentionally drawing such a comparison. Perhaps lightning will strike twice and once more bring forth a Great Britain victorious, happy and glorious, from a messy continental entanglement.