The UK’s exit from the European Union is no longer about the future relationship between the two sides. It is not even about whether the Conservative party can be kept together. It has turned into an operation to stop Nigel Farage from destroying the Tories.
The fourth iteration of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement drew considerable backlash from MPs. Following the Conservative party’s defeat in local elections earlier this month, it suffered fresh humiliation in the 23-26 European Parliament elections, losing all but four of its 15 MEPs. This marked the end of May’s premiership, who will step down on 7 June.
At the time of writing, 10 candidates had declared their intention to run for the Conservative party leadership, with Boris Johnson by far the favourite to replace May.
The bottom line is that at the end of October – the deadline for Brexit – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will declare that the EU has not responded to his generous offer and consequently, his country has no choice but to leave without a deal.
There is no doubt in the minds of the party that it faces an existential crisis. The threat comes from Nigel Farage, whose Brexit party won the UK’s European elections, with more than 30% of the vote. The challenge for the Tories is to find a leader who can draw the faithful back. Johnson is the only one who fits the bill. He can stand up to Farage in populism and slogans. He is of the same breed.
He must convince the conservative voters – and those who on 23 June 2016 voted Leave – that he is as good as Farage when it comes to Brexit. He will be believed. No other credible candidate for Tory leadership enjoys that privilege.
The idea of a second referendum has been floated, but the last thing Prime Minister Johnson and the Conservatives wish is to fight a battle with Farage on his premises. Another option is to restart negotiations and extend the 31 October deadline, but Farage will delight in telling everyone that Boris Johnson is reneging on his promises.
The only way is to ‘out-Farage’ Farage and steer for a no-deal Brexit. That will cost him a few MPs from the Remain wing of the Tory party, but will solidify his position among the other members, so may be worth the price. And one mustn’t forget that many Labour voters supported Brexit, making Boris Johnson palatable as leader in view of their own party sliding increasingly towards a customs union or even a second referendum.
To be seen as a prime minister and not a demagogue, he must attempt to clinch a better deal than May achieved – or at least give the impression he is doing so. He will confront Brussels with an offer tailored to Britain’s interests, knowing that the EU27 cannot, or will not, accept it. Then, he will claim that their intransigence, stubbornness and unreasonableness forced Britain’s hand.
It will be near-impossible for Farage to retaliate. He thrives on elections and campaigning, but Britain’s next election is a general election which does not need to be called before 5 May 2022. Three years is a long time for him to be out of the loop. He will lack a platform on which to criticise Johnson, who will have delivered a no-deal Brexit after having tried to secure a good deal.
The price for eliminating Farage is slower economic growth in Britain and a disastrous future relationship with the EU and Ireland. Scotland’s flirtation with secession will be rekindled and a similar situation could occur in Northern Ireland.
But Johnson may have an answer. He will revive the spirit of 1940 and declare that Britain stands alone against the continent, calling for patriotism and national unity. Farage will be outmanoeuvred and the Labour party labelled ‘unpatriotic’ by the prime minister. An appeal to close ranks could tempt him to call a general election, but as Theresa May discovered in June 2017, such a move entails high risks.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Associate Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.