(CN) — Boris Johnson, a controversial figure in British, European, and now world politics, will become the United Kingdom’s next prime minister Wednesday and lead his country’s difficult Brexit negotiations.
The Conservative Party announced Tuesday that Johnson soundly defeated his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in a leadership contest that lasted 46 days and involved voting by Tory members of Parliament, holding hustings around the country and balloting among grassroots members.
Johnson won the support of 66% of the grassroots party members and activists who voted, or 92,153 of the 159,320 votes cast. That represents less than 0.3% of the British electorate. Under the British parliamentary system, prime ministers are not elected by the general electorate.
Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May leaves office Wednesday, at which point Johnson is expected to announce his Cabinet. Several Cabinet members under May are expected to step down in protest of Johnson’s victory.
May was brought down after Parliament repeatedly rejected a divorce deal she negotiated with the European Union. Johnson was among those critical of the deal, saying it kept Britain indefinitely tied to EU laws and rules. The U.K. voted to leave the EU in a nonbinding referendum in 2016.
Johnson comes into office, ascending to the heights of British politics, as a deeply divisive figure with a history of employing buffoonery, journalistic lies, racist language and charisma.
Despite his checkered past, Johnson is viewed by many Tories as just the kind of affable and unorthodox person the party needs to break the Brexit impasse and force Britain out of the EU.
After winning the leadership contest, Johnson played on this theme, saying he would hit the ground running and unite the country. In fact, Johnson is widely regarded as someone prone to laziness, and he has been accused of incompetency. He is loathed by many Brits who back opposition parties, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
“We’re going to energize the country and we’re going to get Brexit done,” Johnson said after winning the vote. “We’re going to unite this amazing country.”
The ascendancy of Johnson to No. 10 Downing Street opens up a new chapter in what has been one of Great Britain’s most turbulent periods since the end of World War II. Brexit has divided the country and threatens to tear it apart as Scottish politicians push for a new independence referendum. Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland chose to remain within the EU, and Brexit has become a major concern in both regions. There is also growing anger and fear across the U.K. over Britain’s pending departure from the EU.
Johnson described Britain as being at “a pivotal moment in our history” and facing dueling instincts to maintain a “friendship and free trade and mutual support in security and defense between Britain and our European partners,” and a “simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country.”
It is far from clear what a Johnson premiership will do to change the arithmetic in the Parliament, which has deadlocked over Brexit.
Johnson has pledged to take Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, a deadline European leaders gave to Britain to figure out its Brexit dilemma. If he manages to carry out this pledge, Johnson might be forced to leave the EU without an overarching deal that spells out economic and political arrangements between the U.K. and the EU.
Economists and political analysts warn that leaving without a deal could cause catastrophic damage to Britain’s economy and leave the country politically weakened and isolated.
Johnson faces a very delicate and complicated political landscape, and there is a chance he may fail to deliver on his promise to leave the EU by Halloween. Parliament has refused to back leaving without a deal, and he will find it difficult to find a legal way around Parliament’s will.
On the EU front, Johnson has said he will try to change the accord May crafted with the EU, but European leaders have said they will not re-negotiate the deal’s core terms, which includes ensuring that Northern Ireland remains closely tied to EU laws and customs to avoid the need of reinstalling border checks there and disrupting the free flow of traffic and goods in a region still recovering from decades of sectarian conflict.
Johnson cast himself as the person who can break through the impasse and get Brexit over the line.
“And I say to all the doubters, dude, we are going to energize the country,” he said to assembled Tories, eliciting laughter. “We are going to get Brexit done on October 31. We are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can-do.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)