LONDON — Having vanquished two friends-turned-rivals, the bespectacled Scotsman vying to be Britain’s next prime minister squinted out at his country Friday and etched a shiny vision of the future, one undimmed by the chaos he himself has wrought.
Britain, Michael Gove said as he pitched himself for the country’s top job, will be a more enterprising and prosperous place now that it has opted to throw off the shackles of the European Union. It will have additional money for health care, one less layer of burdensome regulation and far fewer immigrants.
“This country voted for change, and I can deliver it,” the wonkish justice secretary said confidently, a day after ambushing the favorite in the race for prime minister, the former London mayor Boris Johnson, and forcing him from the contest.
But as Gove and other British politicians continue to double-cross each other in their quest to run the country, a far more formidable obstacle looms to the sort of change they seek: the E.U.
A week after Britain’s stunning vote to leave the E.U., the battle lines in the monumental exit negotiations to come are clearer than ever. And they don’t favor Britain.
The weight of the leverage, the timing of the talks and the expertise of the negotiators are all factors stacked in favor of the 27 spurned members of the E.U. The imbalance will make it difficult for Gove or any other British leader to make good on any promises of a halcyon life post-Brexit.
“It’s the E.U. and not Britain that has the upper hand here,” said Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a fellow at the London-based Center for European Reform.
Both Europe and Britain would be hurt economically if the two sides can’t reach a deal, she said. But Britain, as the smaller market with more direct dependence on Europe than the other way around, would be hurt more.
Giving the Europeans even greater firepower is the ticking two-year clock on the process once Britain gives formal notice it is leaving the E.U., after which it would be kicked out of the union whether or not a new deal is in place.
Tariffs would automatically snap to those regulated by the World Trade Organization, a switch that could be devastating for Britain’s finance- and service-based economy.
The British “don’t have much leverage there, and on the European Union side there won’t be a lot of views to be very friendly with our former European British members,” said Pierre Vimont, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe who until last year was the secretary general of the E.U.’s diplomatic service
The E.U.’s timing advantage once an exit is triggered explains why both Gove and his main rival for the keys to 10 Downing Street, Home Secretary Theresa May, have said they won’t formally start the clock on Britain’s exit this year.
The delay is in defiance of the call among European leaders to begin talks as soon as possible to end the uncertainty, which has roiled markets and caused the pound to plummet.
In other ways, too, British and European leaders are already staking out sharply contrasting positions that probably foreshadow the contentious talks to come.
In a Europe split by deep disagreements over its future, there was rare unity this week among the 27 remaining nations on one point: If Britain wants unfettered access to the continent’s vast market, it must continue to allow Europe’s citizens to work and travel in Britain without restrictions, leaders said.
No “cherry-picking,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
But British leaders are already eyeing their cherries.
Both Gove and May said that restricting the rights of European workers to move to Britain is an absolute must in any deal.
“I will end free movement, introduce an Australian-style points system and bring numbers down,” Gove vowed Friday.
The Australian points-based immigration system gives greater weight to workers with more relevant skills — an approach that is anathema to Europe’s philosophy, which treats free movement across members’ borders as a basic right.
Any concession to Britain on free movement would probably precipitate calls from across the E.U. for special deals that would allow them to restrict entry for foreigners.
Instead of giving out favors, E.U. members — especially those with swelling Euroskeptic populations — actually have every incentive to be as tough as possible on Britain so that their own voters see what happens when nations dare to leave the union.
“We’ll see the difficulties of a country that wants to leave,” said a visibly angry French President François Hollande after meeting this week with Europe’s remaining leaders to plot strategy. Hollande, who has rock-bottom ratings, faces a surging anti-E.U. opposition in elections next year.
European leaders have already charged a veteran Belgian diplomat, Didier Seeuws, 50, with the grim task of leading a negotiating task force. He will be backed not only by 27 independent nations but also by the European Commission itself, a teeming bureaucracy of 23,000 people whose very expertise in wrangling the fine print of regulations is part of what Britain rejected.
Britain, by contrast, has little human infrastructure to vie with the enormous challenge ahead. An internal review revealed just 20 active trade negotiators in the entire British government, Simon Fraser, a former top Foreign Office official, told Parliament this week.
That’s because, until now, Britain has essentially subcontracted its trade negotiation to Brussels, where the E.U. has an army of at least 600 trade specialists.
Britain’s political leadership is also deeply divided over what it wants from any deal.
Although both Gove and May said this week they would seek concessions on immigration, the two didn’t even agree on the fundamental question of whether Britain should leave the E.U.
Gove was a fervent advocate for “leave.” May reluctantly backed “remain.”
But she has said that if she is chosen to be prime minister, she will follow through on Brexit.
Having backed the losing side, she will probably come under pressure during the summer’s campaign to prove that she is now a believer in the virtues of getting out.
Gove already has opened the issue as a line of attack, saying Friday that “the best person to lead Britain out of the European Union is someone who argued to get Britain out of the European Union.”
The new prime minister will replace David Cameron, who led a failed “remain” campaign after two former friends and political allies — Gove and Johnson — defected to “leave.”
The winner, who will take office Sept. 9, will not be chosen by the general population. Instead, the person will be picked in a two-stage process by the Conservative Party.
Until Thursday morning, Johnson was considered the favorite. But Gove, who was to be Johnson’s campaign manager, stunned British politics by getting into the race himself.
The betrayal added another word to Britain’s increasingly dark political lexicon: Brexecution.
Gove said Friday he had acted out of “conviction, not ambition” after concluding that Johnson — as bombastic as Gove is bookish — was not up to the job.
In a long, policy-laden address Friday, the 48-year-old Gove promised to bring radical change to Britain, citing his record of doing so in Britain’s prisons and schools.
But he also acknowledged his own shortcomings.
“Whatever charisma is,” Gove said in front of a plain-white backdrop in a sparsely furnished conference room, “I don’t have it.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels.