foreign interests

Britain Needs Strong Leadership. Now It Has Showman Boris Johnson.

Newly elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the Conservative Leadership announcement in London on July 23, 2019. Photo: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

Boris Johnson will succeed Theresa May as prime minister of the U.K. tomorrow, after the ruling Conservative Party voted for him as its new leader. Fewer than 200,000 party members voted in the internal election, the result of which was announced this morning, yet Johnson — a polarizing figure whose career has included stints as foreign minister, mayor of London, and newspaper columnist — will now lead a country of 66 million people.

Johnson invites comparison to U.S. president Donald Trump, and the parallels are remarkably extensive: Both men made their names as larger-than-life personalities in the tabloid press and on TV before going into politics, and neither was particularly socially conservative until he saw opportunities to advance his career by embracing right-wing populism. Both Johnson and Trump have tenuous relationships with the truth, lying shamelessly and fluidly and rarely facing consequences for it. They are beloved by their fans but widely disliked among the general public; they even have kindred hairstyles.

The most notable difference between them is that whereas Trump is notoriously unrefined for a man of his status, Johnson is a product of Eton and Oxford, where he studied classics; the crass and combative personality of “Boorish Boris” shares real estate in his brain with a liberal education and a gift of the gab — hence his entrée into politics as a right-wing media hack. Johnson fancies himself a latter-day Winston Churchill (complete with the unrepentant racism and imperialist nostalgia), so it is either fitting or horribly ironic that he comes to Downing Street at a moment in history when the U.K. faces crises the likes of which it has not seen since Churchill’s time.

Brexit, or the failure to deliver it, was Theresa May’s downfall. Like every other prominent Tory (and Trump), Johnson has spent much of the past year mansplaining to her how to manage Brexit, boasting that if he were in charge, he’d have those hated Brussels bureaucrats bending to Britain’s will in no time through groundbreaking tactics like yelling, making threats, and being completely unreasonable. May’s dismal tenure as prime minister was a great time for critics within her party, as it gave them a foil against which to compare their hypothetical leadership without the actual challenge of governing. Johnson being the loudest of these critics, the most charismatic, and the most willing to pander to the basest instincts of his base, it’s no wonder he got the job.

Now he gets to show the world just how great he really is. Unfortunately, the deadline for a Brexit deal is October, and Parliament remains completely unable to assemble a majority in favor of any arrangement the E.U. would actually agree to. Johnson has lambasted May’s Brexit deal for what he describes as ceding U.K. sovereignty over its borders and led the charge against the backstop plan May negotiated with Brussels for ensuring that a hard border is not reestablished between Ireland and Northern Ireland — indeed, he resigned his post as her foreign minister over it last year.

Hard-line Brexiteers hate the backstop, under which Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the E.U. customs union if there was no final deal on the border by the end of the Brexit transition period, because it could force the U.K. to keep following some E.U. rules indefinitely after withdrawing from the bloc, which they see as infringing on national sovereignty. The Tories’ Northern Irish coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, hate it because it would force Northern Ireland to follow a different set of rules, separating it from the U.K.’s other constituent countries. In his policy platform, Johnson says he intends to renegotiate the deal to remove the backstop entirely.

There are several problems with this. First and foremost, the E.U. will not countenance a deal without the backstop: a matter on which European leaders have been crystal clear all along. Preserving the open border on the island of Ireland is considered essential to preserving the peace reached in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For Ireland, in particular, a Brexit deal that doesn’t address this is a complete nonstarter. The DUP, for that matter, doesn’t want to leave the border problem unaddressed, but doesn’t seem to like any of the alternatives. Johnson has made some noise about technological solutions to the Irish-border problem, but these solutions, if they exist, certainly can’t be devised and implemented in three months — and the E.U. would still insist on the backstop, in case they don’t work out.

Johnson’s plan to force the E.U. into doing a Brexit deal on the U.K.’s terms hinges on his willingness to leave with no deal if Brussels won’t play along. To win back English nationalists from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which took ground from the Conservatives in May’s European Parliament elections, Johnson has to coddle these voters in their misguided perception that crashing out of the E.U. would be relatively painless. Many of his fellow Tory lawmakers know better, however, and are already threatening a rebellion in Parliament if he continues to insist on pulling the Brexit trigger on October 31, deal or no deal. Some Cabinet members have already resigned in protest of his no-deal Brexit plan.

None of these political machinations will necessarily stop the U.K. from crashing out with no deal at the end of October, however. Unless the E.U. agrees to renegotiate (which it won’t) or the U.K. Parliament passes some approximation of May’s deal (which it won’t), Johnson’s options this autumn will be a no-deal Brexit or yet another extension, which the E.U. would likely grant but which would dismay hard-Brexit supporters and drive more of them out of the Conservative Party and into Farage’s arms.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Johnson won’t be able to execute on his allegedly brilliant and unique Brexit strategy right out of the gate, because he’ll be too busy dealing with the more pressing crisis of rapidly mounting tensions with Iran. Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday was the latest in a series of escalations between Iran and Western countries following Trump’s announcement of new sanctions on Iranian oil exports in May. Iran has retaliated mainly by harassing shipping in the strait, through which around a fifth of the world’s oil supply travels.

Iran hawks hope that these incidents will inspire the U.K. to break with continental Europe and align more closely with the Trump administration’s adversarial posture toward Iran. The U.K. has tried along with other European countries to salvage the multilateral agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of last year. As Slate’s Joshua Keating notes, Johnson himself made several unsuccessful attempts as foreign minister to dissuade Trump from ditching the deal, and the incoming prime minister has said he would not favor joining U.S.-led military action against Iran.

Surprisingly for a man so prone to insulting foreign countries, cultures, and leaders, Johnson’s first foreign-policy crisis won’t be of his own making, but rather one made in Washington and Tehran. Trump himself does not really want to go to war with Iran, but he has surrounded himself with people who do, and in withdrawing from the nuclear deal, he has set a collision course that will be hard to correct.

Johnson’s dilemma will be whether to adopt Trump’s harder line, at the risk of stumbling into an unimaginably destructive conflict; or to try to talk the president out of the corner he has backed himself into and onto the diplomatic track, which he’s tried before to no avail. Upon setting foot in No. 10 Downing Street, he will find himself at the center of an international crisis that could harm his country severely and over the outcome of which he has very little control — which, in that light, is not all that different from Brexit.

Britain Needs Strong Leadership, Gets Showman Boris Johnson