Boris Johnson — the former UK foreign minister and former mayor of London with a reputation for brashness, bombast, and bending the truth — has won the Conservative leadership contest, setting him up to be Britain’s new prime minister.
Which means the onetime face of Brexit will soon have the responsibility of steering the United Kingdom through its messy divorce with the European Union.
Johnson cruised through the Conservative leadership contest that began last month, his victory over his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, never really in doubt. Johnson entered the race as the clear frontrunner and easily got the backing of Conservative members of Parliament and the approximately 160,000 party voters — the 0.25 percent of Brits who ultimately got to choose the country’s next leader.
“We know the mantra of the campaign that has just gone by, in case you’ve forgotten it — you probably have. It is: deliver Brexit, unite the country, and defeat [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn,” Johnson said during his victory speech on Tuesday. “And that is what we’re going to do.”
But winning might have been the easy part. Johnson is expected to take over as the prime minister on July 24 with the latest Brexit deadline just about three months away, on October 31. And besides a change in leadership — Theresa May out, Johnson in — not much else has shifted. The UK is still divided over how, or whether, to break up with the EU, and May’s original, unpopular deal is still the only one on offer from Brussels.
Johnson, a vocal proponent of Brexit, has said he will renegotiate May’s Brexit deal. The problem is that the EU has said it will not renegotiate, and Johnson’s plan to break the impasse primarily relies on ideas the EU has already rejected and the power of positive thinking.
Johnson has vowed that the UK will leave the European Union on October 31, though, with or without a deal. Time will tell whether that’s mostly campaign bluster or a real strategy, but Johnson has been much more willing to publicly stake out that position.
This hardline stance is at least part of the reason Johnson succeeded in his bid to become prime minister. The tortured EU-UK divorce has polarized the discourse around Brexit, hardening support among Brexit supporters to just break free from the EU at any cost. Parliament, however, remains largely opposed to leaving without a deal, and their objections could make governing as difficult — or more so — for Johnson as it was for May.
And one of the longstanding critiques of Johnson, the former mayor of London, is that he has a habit of making politically expedient promises. He’s said Britain’s political parties face “extinction” if they fail to deliver Brexit. How serious he is about delivering Brexit on October 31 will profoundly shape the future of Britain, and the entire European continent.
Who is Boris Johnson?
Johnson is a 55-year-old Conservative member of Parliament, former foreign minister, and former mayor of London. He’s a polarizing figure within British politics. His supporters embrace his bluntness and wit, controversial statements and all. His critics see him as an calculated self-aggrandizer with malleable political convictions.
Johnson is among the most popular Conservative politicians in a party that isn’t too popular right now. He’s seen as gaffe-prone, from harmless flubs to more controversial racist, sexist, Islamophobic comments.
He was also one of the main figures who advocated for the UK to leave the EU during the 2016 referendum. Johnson remains an ardent Brexiteer, and he’s been a loud (if inconsistent) critic of May’s Brexit deal.
Johnson began his career as a journalist, the highlights of which include getting fired from the Times of London in 1988 for fabricating a quote and working as the Brussels correspondent, where his skeptical coverage of the EU helped fuel some of the EU backlash that would arrive in force during that 2016 referendum.
Johnson became a Conservative member of Parliament in 2001. In 2008, he mounted a bid to become the mayor of London, won in a stunning upset, and ultimately served two terms where he showed his love of publicity stunts and branding exercises.
He presided over the London Olympics, where, as the Guardian put it, he demonstrated “his greatest strength as mayor — an ability to generate laughter and a mood of upbeat bonhomie.” Mostly, that’s because he got stuck on a zipline.
Johnson returned to Parliament, winning a seat as an MP in 2015. (It’s the seat he still holds today.) But an even more ambitious political opportunity presented itself in 2016: the Brexit referendum.
Boris sold UK voters on leaving the EU. Now he’s inheriting what he helped create.
In 2013, then-PM David Cameron promised that if his Conservative Party won the next general election, he would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. Cameron won, and kept his promise. The UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. There were two choices: Leave (the EU) or Remain.
Johnson embraced the Leave campaign in February 2016, after a dramatic will-he-or-won’t-he that played out in public view.
As a popular Conservative politician, Johnson added legitimacy to the Leave campaign. He also publicly broke with Cameron, who advocated for Remain. It was embarrassing for the prime minister, and many critics saw Johnson’s decision as an obvious political ploy — if a risky one at the time.
Hitching himself to the Leave campaign meant that if it prevailed, Johnson could position himself to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. That would be harder to do if he got in line behind Cameron, whatever the referendum outcome.
Johnson effectively became the unofficial leader of the “Vote Leave” campaign, and though he wasn’t the only prominent politician backing the UK’s exit from the EU, he was probably the most memorable. (Another prominent pro-Brexit figure, Nigel Farage, led a parallel but unofficial campaign, Leave.EU.)
Johnson, along with other leaders in the Brexit campaign, made a lot of questionable assertions about the EU-UK relationship. There was the debunked claim that £350 million a week was going to the EU, which Brexiteers claimed could instead be used to fund Britain’s popular National Health Service. Johnson and others also tried to stoke immigration fears, such as arguing that the EU’s freedom of movement rules made the UK less safe.
But the Brexit campaign was successful, and Britain voted to Leave, 52 to 48 percent. Cameron resigned, leaving the party to chose a new leader and the next prime minister. Johnson, fresh off his Brexit victory, was seen as his most obvious successor.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Johnson’s candidacy imploded spectacularly after Michael Gove, a fellow Brexiteer and one of Johnson’s political allies, betrayed him by publicly saying Johnson wasn’t fit to be prime minister and deciding to run himself. It forced Johnson to drop out of the race, which Theresa May eventually won.
Johnson, meanwhile, had to settle for the job of foreign secretary in May’s cabinet.
He didn’t last all that long. In July 2018, he quit in protest of May’s handling of Brexit. Several other prominent cabinet ministers also resigned with him. Johnson and the others saw May as pursuing a “soft Brexit” that would keep the UK closely tied to EU institutions, rather than the more decisive break they preferred. In his resignation letter, he said May’s Brexit plans would give the UK the “status of a colony.”
Johnson continued to protest May’s Brexit approach after his resignation. He referred to her deal, which the EU and UK finalized in November, as “vassal state stuff” and a “humiliation.” Johnson, as an MP, voted down the Brexit deal twice.
When it came up for a vote the third time at the end of March, though, the deal suddenly didn’t seem as humiliating to Johnson — mainly because May promised to resign if Parliament passed it that time around. “You can hang on and be pure, but in the end, the thing I fought for may never happen,” Johnson said at the time. “I genuinely think that unless this thing gets through, the House of Commons is going to steal Brexit.”
The deal didn’t end up passing that time either, undermining his sacrifice. But in the end, he got the outcome he wanted: May couldn’t break the Brexit deadlock, and she was forced to step aside in June.
And Johnson was there, ready to try again. This time, at least, it looked like it worked.
Johnson’s premiership will live or die by Brexit
The Conservative leadership contest was fairly tame. Although a handful of candidates tried out for the job, from the start, Johnson dominated each round of voting among Conservative MPs. When he and Hunt — whom critics called “Theresa May in trousers” — emerged as the two finalists, Johnson looked ready to waltz into the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street.
That has more or less happened. There was only one televised debate between the two, and Johnson ran a mostly disciplined campaign, besides a tabloid-frenzy over an alleged fight with his girlfriend and his refusal to say he wouldn’t fire UK Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch after the kerfuffle over the diplomat’s leaked cables that made unflattering remarks about President Donald Trump.
But neither derailed Johnson’s campaign. The European parliamentary elections in May painfully revealed just how angry the electorate was with Conservatives. They came in fifth, while the Brexit Party — Nigel Farage’s one-issue political party — surged to first.
That walloping at the polls helped unify formerly skeptical MPs around Johnson. And the Conservative Party members who also vote are older, richer, skew male, and are more strongly pro-Brexit than the rest of the country.
“They’re consumed, if not obsessed, by Brexit,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London and expert on Conservative politics, told the Washington Post.
And for them, Johnson — who’s said leaving the EU on October 31 is “do or die” — has the message they most want to hear.
The problem, of course, is that Johnson faces an extraordinarily difficult challenge in delivering the Brexit he promised. Some of his proposals are ones the EU has already rejected out of hand.
Faced with criticism of his flimsy approach, Johnson has relied on his natural skills as a politician, saying those dismissive of Brexit’s success were essentially defeatists. In his likely last column in the Daily Telegraph before he became Conservative leader, Johnson compared solving Brexit to the “can-do spirit” that brought the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 — though he didn’t offer any concrete plan to back up his optimism.
Brussels, so far, has said the withdrawal agreement it negotiated with May’s government is the final Brexit deal, and that it has to be ratified if the UK wants to have a transition period and create a free trade agreement. Sure, the EU could also change its mind and work with Johnson. But right now, both sides seem pretty far apart.
This would all seem to increase the odds of a risky no-deal Brexit, and taking the UK out of the EU without a deal is predicted to be very, very bad for the UK. Products could be more expensive, there could be runs on food or medicine, travel could be disrupted. The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility has said a no-deal will plunge the UK into a recession.
Johnson probably wants to stay in power for more than a few months, so the idea of ripping the UK out of the EU on October 31 might be a tad less appealing when he’ll get the blame for it.
And while Johnson may be in charge, Parliament stays the same. British lawmakers haven’t ever been able to figure out what Brexit they want, but they have consistently rejected a no-deal scenario.
Which is why there’s a lot of talk about a general election to break the logjam. Johnson could argue that he needs to change the makeup in Parliament to get his version of Brexit through. Parliament would have to go along with it, and it’s risky for so many reasons — just ask May, who attempted this in 2017 and lost seats. Johnson’s a much better campaigner than May, but he’s still a polarizing figure in a country being torn apart by the Brexit debate.
“In a sense, what are the outcomes?” Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, a think tank focused on the EU-UK relationship, said. “You could have this deal ratified, very unlikely. You could have a different deal because you get concessions from the European Union, very unlikely. You could cancel Brexit, very unlikely. You could do a no-deal if Parliament lets you do that. Very unlikely. Or you could have a general election. Very unlikely.”
“The beauty of the current situation is all possible outcomes seem enormously implausible, but one of them is going to happen,” he added.
Brexit, of course, won’t be the only issue Johnson has to deal with when he comes prime minister. But that’s pretty much what this leadership contest was about, and it will define much more than Johnson’s prime ministership — for however long it lasts.