(CN) – Boris Johnson, a 55-year-old former mayor of London and a reviled Tory figure in European political circles, tightened his grip Thursday on becoming the next British prime minister.
The prospect of Johnson replacing Prime Minister Theresa May and leading Brexit negotiations with the European Union has seriously improved the odds of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal in October, even as polls show opposition to Brexit has grown in the United Kingdom.
Johnson is the frontrunner in an intense and nasty Tory leadership contest to find the next Conservative Party leader following May’s resignation nearly a month ago after she was unable to get a 550-page EU-U.K. withdrawal deal through a broken and deadlocked House of Commons.
On Thursday evening, the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee announced that Johnson won 160 ballots out of the 313 votes cast by fellow Tory members of Parliament. The runner-up was Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has vowed to continue working on finding a deal that works for both the EU and the U.K.
These two now will conduct a month-long campaign of hustings where they will meet with grassroots Tories across the country and seek to sell their policies on Brexit and visions for Britain.
A postal ballot of about 160,000 Tory grassroots members, a majority of whom are deeply antagonistic toward the EU, will then elect the next Tory leader. Johnson is very popular among this group and he is seen as the likely winner.
Johnson in Downing Street, the prime minister’s office, raises the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU on unfriendly terms because he was a chief spokesman for the campaign in 2016 that led to a majority of English and Welsh voters to back leaving the EU, dragging with them the rest of the U.K. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
Nonetheless, Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31, the next deadline the EU gave Britain to sort out its Brexit conundrum.
Speaking Thursday in Brussels during a meeting of heads of EU states, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said there was a lot of frustration in Europe with Britain and that it was growing ever more likely that the EU would not grant an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline.
“While I have endless patience, some of my colleagues have lost patience, quite frankly, with the U.K. and there’s enormous hostility to any further extension,” Varadkar told reporters.
The events in London seem to destine an embittering of politics and relations between Britain and the EU.
Brexit is by far not the only pressing issue facing an EU that is choosing its own new leaders and formulating new policies positions in regards to a host of issues, among them region-wide tensions in Russia, Turkey and Iran, restructuring the hulking EU bureaucracy and fending off a rise in far-right politics across Europe.
For many, Britain is making a terrible mistake by pushing ahead with Brexit and unraveling decades of ever-closer cooperation with its European neighbors. After World War II and the dissolution of the British empire, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned Britain toward Europe, arguing that Britain’s safety and prosperity were linked to Europe.
With Brexit, Britain is withdrawing from the European stage and seeking to forge new relationships, as part of a bid to renew Britain’s strengths. Many of those advocating Brexit, including Johnson, say Britain can regain its world stature by taking a go-it-alone approach and striking new trade deals.
The Brexiteers look toward the United States principally as their key ally – arguing that by riding on the back of this superpower Britain too can prosper much more than it would if it remained attached to the EU.
Brexiteers argue that European economies are stagnant, over-employed and too restrictive. While there is high unemployment in many European nations, the EU’s combined markets make it the world’s largest single trading bloc, and many of the critiques Brexiteers make are seen as sheer fantasy.
This policy shift away from Europe of course has profound meanings for everyone involved. For one, an emboldened new U.S.-U.K. special relationship could in turn force Europe into a new defensive position toward these two traditional allies and military strengths. Also, there is concern in Europe that in pushing for Brexit, the U.K. is seeking a competitive advantage over the EU.
Inside Britain, many warn against Johnson’s hard Brexit too.
David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, urged Johnson and Hunt to seriously consider the implications of crashing out of the EU.
“The Tory party is facing some existential political challenges, and the union of the United Kingdom is under greater strain than I have never known it in my lifetime,” he told reporters. “There are some key constitutional issues, some really key political challenges for the party, and I think it’s really important that the candidates show they’re up for addressing that.”
In a speech Thursday night, British Chancellor Philip Hammond, the head of the Treasury, warned that a hard Brexit, as advocated by Johnson, posed the threat of breaking apart the U.K.
“We have to rediscover ways in which people can be both proudly Scottish and proudly British at the same time,” he said in his speech. “I think the union of the U.K. needs to be a priority that runs through the heart of the next government.”
A no-deal Brexit “would add to the risks to the union,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a secret I believe that – but I think, too, that we have to be confident about demonstrating that the union of United Kingdom brings benefits to every part of the United Kingdom.”
Independence drives in Scotland and Northern Ireland have gained momentum since Brexit and Scotland’s government, while railing against Brexit, has promised to hold another vote on independence. In 2014, a Scottish independence referendum was held in which support for remaining in the U.K. won 55% to 45%.
Revealingly, polling among Tory voters, who are found largely in England and Wales, feel so strongly about Brexit that they would be happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland go their separate ways if that was what is needed for Brexit to happen.
This Brexit crisis was an outgrowth of a nationalist movement led by Nigel Farage and his U.K. Independence Party, a radical anti-EU and pro-English party. For them, gaining independence from the EU is paramount.
The party, also known as UKIP, stemmed for anger over Britain’s signing the Treaty on the European Union, better known as the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992. Under the treaty, member states agreed to merge their economies and politics to an ever greater degree and found a federal European state on the model of the United States.
Under Farage’s uncanny and boisterous leadership combined with growing anger in Britain over the imposition of EU rules on everything from how farmers’ cow slurry can be disposed of to how much air pollution a car can emit has fueled the opposition to the EU bureaucracy in Britain.
For his part, Johnson is a core figure in this group of agitators, which dwells mostly on the right wing of the Tory party. He has led the attacks against this perceived EU “super-state.” A favorite attack line by Brexiteers is to compare the EU to the Soviet Union, a communist superstate.
In the 1990s, Johnson was sent to Brussels as the correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, a deeply conservative paper linked to the Tory party, and made a name for himself by writing scurrilous attacks on the EU institutions.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)