The man to decide Brexit. Maybe.
Boris Johnson's decisiveness on Brexit is appealing, so much so he is on track to become Britain's next PM. Peter McKenzie explains why he is actually the least decisive and least reliable candidate in the field.
Brexit is a saga of relentless indecision. On the day of the referendum, about 28 percent of Britons didn’t even show up. Among those who did, the vote was agonisingly close: 48.1 percent of voters in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, 51.9 percent in favour of leaving. One non-voter interviewed by The Guardian the day after the referendum explained that, “I don’t understand it, so I left it to the people who did. Now I’m being told it’s not good and it’s going to cost us loads of money. Like we need that.”
Guilt set in quickly. By October of 2016, enough ‘Leave’ voters regretted their vote that if the referendum were held again, the outcome would have been reversed. And while the campaign to hold such a second referendum hasn’t been successful, neither has the political process to leave the EU. The UK was initially scheduled to leave March 29, 2019. But nobody could agree on a deal for what that exit would look like. What would trade relations between the EU and UK be? How about immigration? EU regulations?
So the UK asked for an extension. And when they got that, they asked for another. Now the UK is blundering towards their third ‘deadline’: October 31. But there’s still no plan and instead of deciding on what to do, the governing Conservative Party is busy choosing a new leader.
The current front-runner to win that leadership content, and thus the Prime Ministership, is Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and former Foreign Minister. He is promising something entirely new: a decision. Since he launched his campaign, he has repeatedly vowed to take the UK out of the EU by October 31, deal or no deal. Putting aside the catastrophic impact a no-deal Brexit would have on the UK’s economy, his decisiveness is appealing.
And so far, it’s working. Conservative Members of Parliament are slowly winnowing the initial field of 10 candidates to just two, who will be voted on by general members of the Conservative Party in a head-to-head match-up. Johnson is so far ahead that in the first round of winnowing, he won the votes of 114 Conservative MPs; well above the 105 votes he needed to secure a spot in the final two.
The irony is that Johnson is the least decisive and least reliable candidate in the field. When the political tussle over Brexit was still in its early stages, and the referendum had not yet happened, Johnson was called upon to declare his colours. And so Johnson wrote two articles: one declaring his support for remaining in the EU, one declaring his opposition. Wracked by indecision, and with just a few days to spare, he spasmodically chose the latter.
It was hardly out of character. Johnson has always been a post-truth politician. In his former life as a journalist, Johnson grossly fabricated a quote for the front page of The Times (and was fired for it). Johnson later covered the European Union and Brussels for the Telegraph. When he was finally recalled to London, one of his fellow British journalists wrote a poem to celebrate: “Boris told such dreadful lies / It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.” Early on in his career as a politician, he categorically denied allegations that he was having an affair, only for them to turn out to be true. In his advocacy for the ‘Leave’ campaign, Johnson alleged that the UK was giving £350 million to the EU every week (prompting a reprimand for “clear misuse of official statistics” by a government watchdog) and that the EU was regulating the shape of bananas (another outright lie).
This is the man who the Conservative Party is all but certain to elect as the UK’s new Prime Minister, trusted to end the indecision and deliver on Brexit once and for all.
Of course, the other candidates aren’t stellar either. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt believes it is possible to reach a new deal with the EU over how to leave but won’t explain why or how. Hunt is best known for his trip to Beijing in July of last year, where he boasted that, “My wife is Japanese”, before quickly correcting himself since his wife, Lucia Guo, is actually Chinese. Michael Gove is struggling after he admitted to repeatedly using cocaine in the past - an admission which wouldn’t have been quite so damning if he hadn’t previously written a column slamming “London’s liberal consensus” on relaxing the prohibition on consumption of Class A drugs, and if he hadn’t overseen lifetime bans on teachers for using Class A drugs while he was Education Secretary. Dominic Raab, a hardline conservative promising no deal, has been denounced by the EU for disseminating “fake, fraudulent and pure disinformation that has been spread maliciously”. These are hardly reliable characters in whom it is easy to trust. Worse, all the candidates have refused to rule out a no-deal exit from the EU - except for Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development and only competent person in the leadership race. Unfortunately, Stewart’s sanity comes across as lunacy to most of his Conservative Party peers.
So, assuming that Johnson wins, from here there are two possible outcomes. First, Johnson faces reality and backs down from his promise of a calamitous no-deal Brexit, returning to the endless meltdown cycle of Brexit, where a satisfactory deal is impossible.
Second, Johnson miraculously follows through on his promise of a no-deal Brexit. He would have to do so in spite of the fraught political dynamics of a British parliament which has repeatedly refused to countenance a no-deal Brexit. The only method of doing so which Johnson has even hinted at has been to ‘prorogue’ parliament: suspending parliament in order to prevent it from challenging his executive decision. It would provoke a constitutional crisis of the first order. Rory Stewart, the leadership candidate who at the time was in last place, responded by saying that, “If he were to try, I and every other member of parliament will sit across the road in Methodist Central Hall and we will hold our own session of parliament.”
Such a move would essentially institutionalise the diametrically opposed political instincts of the British public. This is the reality of British politics: where nothing is satisfactory and nobody is trustworthy. In such a world, the best possible outcome is for no choice at all to be made. And so the UK’s endless saga of indecision rolls on.