(CN) — The United Kingdom, already rattled by Brexit and tensions with Iran, enters a new and unsettling crisis point this week with the pending ascendancy of former London Mayor Boris Johnson, the man likely to take over No. 10 Downing Street and become the leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy and one of its strongest militaries.
On Monday, the Conservative Party’s grassroots membership cast the final votes in a leadership contest that pits Johnson, a controversial and bombastic pro-Brexit and pro-Trump politician, against Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s moderate foreign secretary who’s the favorite among Tories keen to see the U.K. maintain close ties with the European Union.
The results of the Tory leadership election are to be announced Tuesday. Johnson is viewed as the clear frontrunner to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. If he wins, he would take over as prime minister on Wednesday.
His expected victory prompted key members of May’s Conservative government to announce they will resign under a Johnson premiership. The resignations pose an immediate challenge to Johnson.
The first to go Monday was Alan Duncan, the foreign office minister. In a resignation letter, Duncan lamented Britain’s decision to leave the EU. He previously called Johnson incompetent.
“It is tragic that just when we could have been the dominant intellectual and political force throughout Europe, and beyond, we have had to spend every day working beneath the dark cloud of Brexit,” Duncan wrote.
Duncan was among many senior Tory leaders who voted to Remain in the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum. But the Leave side — led by Johnson — won by collecting 52% of the votes, most of them cast in England. A majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
Besides Duncan, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has said he will step down if Johnson wins. Justice Secretary David Gauke is also set to join his colleagues and resign.
These Cabinet members, like many other moderates in the Tory party, are ardent opponents of Johnson’s plan to leave the EU on acrimonious no-deal terms. These moderates worry that leaving the EU without a deal establishing trade and political parameters will cause lasting economic and political damage.
On Monday, two former Labour prime ministers and one former Conservative prime minister also spoke out against leaving without a deal.
“As the evidence mounts of the probable economic and social damage of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit – and of the rising opposition to it – the new prime minister must choose whether to be the spokesman for an ultra-Brexit faction, or the servant of the nation he leads,” said John Major, a former Tory prime minister. “He cannot be both, and the choice he makes will define his premiership from the moment of its birth.”
At the outset of his campaign for the prime minister’s job, Johnson vowed to leave the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31, a deadline the EU set for Britain to make up its mind about keeping close ties with the EU bloc — as spelled out in a deal May hammered out with the EU — or leave without a deal.
On Sunday in his weekly newspaper column for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson downplayed those fears and argued that Britain could use special technology along the border in Northern Ireland to allow for “frictionless trade.” The EU has rejected this solution in the past, and stipulated that any trade agreement between the EU and the U.K. will require that Northern Ireland remain largely in line with EU rules and customs regulations. Keeping the Northern Irish border open and free of customs checks has been the most vexing problem in finding a Brexit solution. A closed border poses the risk of reigniting paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.
In his column, Johnson said a technological solution was possible, and used the 50th anniversary of the moon landing as inspiration. His comparison between creating technology to fix Brexit’s customs complexities and the development of the moon landing technology was mocked by many commentators.
“It is time this country recovered some of its can-do spirit,” he wrote. “We can come out of the EU on October 31, and yes, we certainly have the technology to do so. What we need now is the will and the drive.”
For months, Britain’s Parliament has been deadlocked over whether to accept the divorce deal May’s government and the EU crafted over three years of negotiations. That deal establishes terms for continued trade and cooperation. But a fractured Parliament rejected May’s deal three times and the impasse forced her to resign, opening the way for Johnson to take the helm. Some in Parliament felt that the deal keeps the U.K. too closely tied to the EU while others, especially the opposition Labour Party, argued it was better to remain in the EU than leave the EU and its institutions.
Johnson is a deeply divisive figure often compared to U.S. President Donald Trump for his flamboyance and radical politics. Trump and Johnson are friends and each has risen to the top by seizing on a growing appetite among voters to back radical nationalist politics. Trump breached diplomatic protocol and got involved in Britain’s leadership race by backing Johnson’s candidacy.
Johnson, 55, is a darling for a majority of the Tory party’s membership, which is made up of deeply conservative English who feel that their country is under threat from EU laws and immigration. This majority in the rank-and-file of the Tory party see in Johnson a brash and charming politician capable of breaking the impasse over Brexit and leading Britain out of the EU.
But outside of this hardcore Tory segment, Johnson is viewed with deep reservations and even loathing. He has a checkered and well-documented past riddled with lies and offensive remarks, heavy partying and slothfulness, broken marriages and ruthless ambition. His life story has been the subject of books and inspires both admiration and deep dislike among many British.
He has been an outspoken newspaper columnist who’s used racist language in the past while also carrying on a political career buoyed by a penchant for winning elections through of combination of disarming charm and buffoonery but also skullduggery.
His ascendancy to the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street is expected to spark a series of conflicts within the U.K. and between Great Britain and the EU. He is largely a reviled figure in European circles, mostly due to his long history of lampooning the EU during his career as a Brussels-based journalist and later as a newspaper columnist in London who ridiculed the EU, often using outright lies about EU laws and politicians.
Overshadowing the Tory leadership contest — and providing a sense of emergency to events in Britain — is an intense stand-off between Britain and Iran over the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. The vessel was accused by Tehran of striking an Iranian fishing vessel, but its seizure was seen as a retaliatory move after British military forces helped seize an Iranian oil tanker allegedly taking oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions two weeks ago.
On Monday, the British government, still led by May, held emergency talks to deal with the stand-off with Iran and figure out ways to ensure the safe passage of British oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)