Brexit booster Boris Johnson wins race to be U.K. prime minister; battles over EU departure lie ahead
Boris Johnson helped sow the Brexit wind. Now, victorious in the race for British prime minister, he’ll reap the whirlwind.
An eccentric and unpredictable politician with a winning populist touch, Johnson overwhelmingly won a party leadership contest on Tuesday that set him up as the next head of government. He will formally take up the prime minister’s post on Wednesday after an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
Johnson, 55, will immediately face an array of crises. A hard-line Brexiter, he insists Britain will depart the European Union as scheduled on Oct. 31, despite bitter national divisions on how or even whether to do so. He also confronts high tensions with Iran over oil shipping in the Persian Gulf and a brewing rebellion within the ranks of his own party.
President Trump, who has been a booster of both Brexit and Johnson, swiftly tweeted his congratulations, without waiting for Johnson to formally take office. “Congratulations to Boris Johnson on becoming the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,” the president wrote. “He will be great!”
Speaking later to a conservative student summit, Trump elaborated: “He’s tough and he’s smart.… Boris is good. He’ll get it done.” The U.S. president, who is widely disliked in Britain, noted approvingly that Johnson is known as Britain’s Trump, adding: “They like me over there!”
Because of the quirks of the British political system, only dues-paying members of the governing Conservative Party — just 160,000 people — were eligible to vote in the leadership contest. That means that the new prime minister was in effect picked by less than 1% of the electorate, chosen by a group that is older, wealthier and more likely to be white than the average voter.
Johnson’s acceptance speech was delivered in his trademark exuberant hand-waving style, including some language that might be considered unconventional, coming from a product of Britain’s most elite educational institutions.
“Dude, we are going to energize the country!” he declared. “We are going to get Brexit done!” (He told bemused listeners that the jaunty mode of address was a play of words on a campaign acronym.)
The prime-minister-in-waiting has leaned heavily on the notion that sheer national determination can make a success of Brexit, despite unabated polarization and rancor that erupted after the June 2016 vote to leave the EU.
His detractors say Johnson has a misplaced faith that his own charisma will lead the Europeans to allow Britain to shake off EU rules while maintaining many of the essential privileges of membership in the bloc.
“We are once again going to believe in ourselves,” Johnson told the party faithful who assembled in Westminster to hear the vote results announced.
Johnson had been heavily favored to triumph over rival Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, and the lopsided 2-1 tally was in line with those expectations: 92,153 votes for Johnson and 46,656 for Hunt. Turnout was 87.4%.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who stayed on in a caretaker capacity after stepping down as party leader last month, will formally tender her resignation to the queen Wednesday at Buckingham Palace. May and her predecessor David Cameron were both done in by Brexit, with May struggling for most of her three years in office to win lawmakers’ approval for a deal to depart the EU.
Johnson, a former foreign secretary, has insisted that if no Brexit accord can be reached, he is willing to “crash out” of the bloc without a deal — a scenario most economists have said would be financially disastrous for Britain and have serious repercussions for the global economy.
A key architect of Brexit, Johnson was a ubiquitous figure during the run-up to the 2016 referendum, often citing highly questionable statistics to tout the benefits of abandoning the EU. But British news accounts have detailed how, just before publicly jumping in on the “leave” side, he penned drafts of two side-by-side newspaper columns, passionately advocating for both positions, then making a last-minute decision.
And his premiership could even see a splintering of the United Kingdom. Scotland rejected an independence referendum in 2014, but the Brexit battle has revived breakaway sentiments because most Scots want to stay part of the EU. After Johnson won Tuesday’s vote, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she had “profound concerns” about him becoming prime minister.
Johnson insists that a “can-do” attitude will allow Britain to either strike a favorable deal with the EU or weather the hardships of a no-deal exit. But several key Cabinet ministers have already announced they would not serve in a government under Johnson unless he backs off from his “do or die” stance on an Oct. 31 departure. And the Conservatives hold only a slim parliamentary majority.
The EU has already ruled out substantial changes to the deal it struck with May, which she repeatedly failed to get through Parliament. After the vote, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted, “We look forward to working constructively” with Johnson.
No matter how the incoming leader proceeds, tumultuous times lie ahead. Some observers have suggested that Johnson, known for policy flip-flops, could stage some dramatic reversal. Potential scenarios could include abandoning his current willingness to depart the EU with no new trade agreement, throwing his support to a new referendum instead.
Other possibilities include new elections or yet another delay in the Brexit implementation date.
In a precursor of the conflicting pressures to come, rival politicians quickly weighed in on Johnson’s ascension. Nigel Farage, leader of the hard-line new Brexit Party that triumphed in Britain’s elections for the European Parliament, publicly mused about whether the incoming prime minister would have “the courage to deliver.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said on Twitter that Johnson was “pushing for a damaging No Deal Brexit” but “hasn’t won the support of the country.”
A key challenge for Johnson will be navigating relations with Trump, to whom he is often likened. His predecessor, May, tried hard to build a cordial relationship with the U.S. leader, but he seemed to foil her at every turn, talking up rivals such as Johnson and Farage and chiding her for failing to heed his advice on handling Brexit.
Johnson’s prospects for bonding with Trump appear better, but he has made many unflattering comments about the U.S. president in the past, some of which are likely to be rehashed publicly. This month, though, Johnson deferred to Trump by refusing to publicly defend Kim Darroch, the U.K.’s ambassador to Washington. Trump was furious after Darroch, in leaked diplomatic cables, bluntly assessed his administration as inept and dysfunctional. The envoy quickly resigned.
Associates have said Johnson’s early life was marked by ambition. Born in New York to English parents, young Alexander Johnson — Boris is a middle name — attended boarding school at Eton, an incubator of future British leaders, and studied classics at Oxford before going on to a colorful and sometimes checkered professional career.
At one point he worked as a journalist in Brussels, where he specialized in tales about bumbling or malicious EU bureaucrats. He later became mayor of London, serving two terms, and foreign secretary, a post in which he was criticized for gaffes and inattention to detail.
With two failed marriages behind him, Johnson has had a stormy private life. British news reports were full of speculation as to whether his current domestic partner, Carrie Symonds, would join him at 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s official residence.
As Johnson steps in, time is running out for a Brexit deal. Parliament will go into recess on Thursday and won’t meet again until Sept. 3, leaving what many call a dauntingly short window to avert a chaotic departure from the bloc.
The leader-to-be brushed aside any qualms.
“Do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?” he asked fellow Conservatives. “I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me.... The people of this country are trusting in us.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.
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