LONDON — The front-runner to be the next British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is barnstorming across the countryside, campaigning on his Latin-quoting, rumple-suited, Oxford-educated, optimistic, populist Englishness.
But most of all, Johnson is running on Brexit. Yet again.
Johnson was the face of the winning Vote Leave campaign in the June 2016 referendum — the one promising an easy exit from the European Union that would mark a windfall for the treasury and usher in a new age of global go-go Britain. And now it is his time to deliver his Brexit.
To secure support from the 160,000 voting members of the Conservative Party who will choose the next prime minister — and who are very miffed, by the way, after three years of dithering — Johnson has promised that “do or die” Britain will leave the E.U. in October.
The Tories are harrumphing: Get on with it and then let’s have a pint.
Johnson boasts that he will deliver, “come what may.”
It is a bold promise — and, his critics charge, a reckless one.
Johnson has committed to a leap into the unknown with his vow to leave without a withdrawal deal if one has not been sorted by Oct. 31 — the latest deadline granted by the Europeans. A no-deal departure would achieve maximum sovereignty, but it could very well leave Britain poorer, at least in the short run, according to a stack of gloomy reports from economists and the government itself.
This past week, the British manufacturing group Make UK called Johnson’s no-deal pledge the “height of irresponsibility,” reflecting “zero understanding” of how modern, fine-tuned free-trade economies work.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said last month that Johnson’s contention that Britain could continue to breeze along with its current free-trade arrangement with Europe after a no-deal departure was balderdash. Carney went on to warn that most British businesses, importers and exporters alike are unprepared for a no-deal Brexit.
There was also pushback to Johnson’s claim on Thursday that in a no-deal Brexit, Britain could avoid its financial obligations to the E.U. and “have an additional 39 billion pounds [$49 billion] to spend.” The British government’s own analysis predicts that a no-deal Brexit would more than wipe that out.
Like outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May before him, Johnson has been painting lots of red lines that could force him into uncomfortable corners.
He said he will name only Tories who are “reconciled” to a no-deal exit to his cabinet, which could leave few chairs for moderates to help him govern — or pass his future Brexit deal, whatever that might be.
Additionally, the Daily Telegraph, where Johnson still works as a $350,000-a-year columnist, revealed that the candidate is preparing a smaller “war cabinet” to dispense with all obstacles to Britain leaving the E.U. on Oct. 31.
Good luck with that, say his many disbelievers. The Labour Party’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, warned Johnson that the House of Commons will “do everything to stand in his way” if he tries to muscle through a “bad deal or a no-deal Brexit.”
Meanwhile, Johnson’s challenger to be prime minister, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who voted against leaving in June 2016 — has firmed up his Brexit bona fides by promising that he, too, will go for a no-deal exit if a new withdrawal plan proves impossible.
There is some debate about whether either contender would stand by his bulldog rhetoric — whether it is more a sly play to get votes at home or a negotiating tactic abroad. Johnson has said that he does not really want to leave without a deal — he wants a better deal — but that Britain must prepare for such a scenario to win concessions from the Europeans.
Sonia Purnell, author of “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition,” said she was skeptical of Johnson’s “do or die” comments. Johnson has positioned himself as “priest in chief” of the Conservative Party membership, she said. “But do I believe he would leave without a deal? No, I don’t. Because he will have seen the government briefings on what it means. I think it’s posturing to play to those people who have signed up to the cult of Brexit.”
Johnson was highly critical of his party’s past leaders, both May and David Cameron, saying they were not being tough enough with “Eurocrats.” Johnson, when resigning from May’s cabinet, compared the deal she negotiated to a pile of excrement that needed to be polished.
Johnson rose to national prominence as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph — notorious for his exaggerations and mockery in print — and he believes he knows Europe best.
But a better deal by Halloween?
That would be difficult. Here’s why:
There will be only about 23 sitting days in Parliament between the day the new prime minister takes office in late July and Oct. 31. Johnson would need to negotiate his new, improved deal and persuade Parliament to buy it. This is the same House of Commons that three times voted down May’s deal — with the “no” votes coming not just from the opposition but from zealous Tory backbenchers.
The Europeans, meanwhile, have not changed their fundamental position, at least publicly. Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian and leader of the liberal wing in the European Parliament, said Johnson is deluded if he thinks that Britain can “tear up the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the E.U., withhold its financial commitments to the bloc, and simultaneously start negotiating free-trade deals.”
Johnson says he wants to rewrite the Brexit deal’s safeguards for keeping an open and free border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, a member state of the E.U.
Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said that would be a “terrible political miscalculation.”
If Johnson stumbles, hard-line Brexiteers have threatened to stage a no-confidence vote that could bring down his fledgling government. British lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit have threatened the same.
That could lead to a general election, which would see a wounded Conservative Party challenged not only by its traditional adversary, the Labour Party, but by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and newly invigorated, anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, said Johnson’s strategy could be to “put lipstick on the pig” — getting the E.U. to agree to minor adjustments to the existing deal but playing it up as a rewrite.
“In practice it will be very similar to the previous deal,” Grant anticipated.
Johnson may be betting that dressing up the deal could be enough to win support from Conservative lawmakers worried about the Brexit Party. It could also garner support from leave-voting lawmakers, who are worried that Brexit may not happen at all.
European leaders, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, are weary of Brexit. Many were appalled to see Brexit Party members take their seats — and salaries — in the European Parliament this past week and turn their backs when the E.U. anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” was played.
Yet the Europeans do not want to see Britain jump ship without a life preserver. There is self-interest in this. Britain, after all, still represents the fifth-largest economy in the world. If Johnson wanted more talks, they would probably offer to parley — and if Johnson needed more time, there would be more delay.
There are others who expect Johnson to become as frustrated as May and to seek a second referendum to settle the Brexit question — which could see him campaigning for Brexit for yet a third time.
“Boris Johnson is doing something very simple: He is telling the people what they want to hear,” said Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham.
But Johnson’s problems “will start as soon as he is leader,” Fielding said. “He is making so many promises — and there are no buts, no qualifications on what he says — that if he doesn’t deliver Brexit, he is in big trouble.”