Britain is trying to resolve its problem over leaving the European Union through a further round of the Conservative party’s 30-year civil war. Theresa May, limping on as caretaker prime minister, will hand over to a successor by the end of July. The Conservatives’ 12th leader since Winston Churchill, being decided first by parliamentary party voting and then a country-wide poll of party members, looks likely to be Boris Johnson, former journalist, mayor of London and foreign secretary.
May, in her stoical but undistinguished three years in power, was undermined by her own party, not by Labour. Her flawed but workable Brexit deal – over which Johnson resigned from the cabinet (with a three-day delay) in July 2018 but later voted for in the House of Commons – still presents (with some minor, realisable modifications) the best basis for UK departure. The Conservatives will damage the country irretrievably if they end up electing another short-lived leader.
Johnson brings three drawbacks and one benefit
The first negative is his personality. He is charming, writes good newspaper columns and can spout Latin at the drop of a hat. But after May’s predecessor, David Cameron, it is doubtful whether the country deserves another Eton- and Oxford-dedicated ‘master of the universe’. He polarises as much as he unites. It would not be the first time that a UK prime minister had a reputation for either unreliability, low capacity for sustained work, or inability to think strategically. But it would probably be the first time that a leader combined all three traits. His rivals will make much of this in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Second, Johnson looks unlikely to realise plans for Brexit without seriously damaging the British economy. We cannot expect prudent behaviour from an aspirant head of the world’s pre-eminent pro-capitalist party who has said ‘Fuck business’. He claims that Britain must renegotiate May’s Brexit deal by threatening to leave without a treaty. But the bargaining ploy, while logical, is undermined by the UK’s palpable lack of preparation. And, as well publicised by Johnson’s opponents such as Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, a no-deal exit plan could lead to a House for Commons revolt and new attrition over a second referendum or an early general election.
Third, Johnson would harm Britain’s international standing. His good relations with US President Donald Trump may not be an overwhelming plus. He was a poor foreign secretary, frequently failing to read his brief, and embarrassing. Recall the episode when the UK ambassador to Myanmar had to intervene after Johnson started reciting a racist colonial-era poem by Rudyard Kipling about the Burmese.
Johnson is the man who said the post-Brexit Irish border question was not a problem since it was like crossing into Kensington. His knowingly false claim that EU withdrawal would yield £350m a week for the National Health Service was one of many factors lowering his clout in EU capitals. This is a fresh reason why renegotiating the exit treaty is not a viable proposition.
Johnson’s advantage springs from an intermingling of his weaknesses: his innate flexibility. Like many journalists, he has written or proclaimed, frequently contradictorily, many times on many issues. Groucho Marx’s maxim comes to mind: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.’
There is a superficial parallel with Jens Weidmann. The German Bundesbank chief has fiercely opposed over many years Mario Draghi’s strategies to shore up the euro area – but may be selected over the next fortnight to perpetuate Draghi’s dovish legacy as European Central Bank president. With Weidmann possibly at the ECB and Johnson in Downing Street, we would surely be in for a bumpy ride.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai, a Labour peer, is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council. David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.