Voices: The end of Boris Johnson does not mean the end of Brexit

·4-min read
The disgraced former leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, seems moderate and almost a centrist by comparison (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The disgraced former leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, seems moderate and almost a centrist by comparison (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Already, one thing is clear from the contest of ambitious Conservative MPs in England who would like to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister. All of them so far sound identical in their hostility to any idea of a rapprochement with the European Union.

And although half of the candidates so far declared come from diverse ethnic backgrounds – Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Kurd, East African, Mauritian and include Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – they all speak the same way: like an English version of a fusion of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

They are hostile to the European Union, do not like the European Convention on Human Rights or its court, believe that Britain should sign trade deals with countries whose meat and poultry products are stuffed full of hormones, and support the position of extremist Northern Ireland anti-Catholic politicians who want to tear up the protocol in the US-EU withdrawal Treaty that protects the Good Friday Agreement.

In fact, the disgraced former leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, seems moderate and almost a centrist by comparison; despite fresh allegations emerging about how he tried to promote a young woman 20 years his junior when he was Mayor of London, allegedly in exchange for sexual favours.

At the time he was married with four children – the image of a family man, which helped his career as an MP and Mayor of London.

The woman, now married in her 40s, recorded an alleged conversation with Johnson whichclaims that the future prime minister promised to advance her career in Conservative Party politics in exchange for sex.

Yet Johnson has only resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. He has not resigned as prime minister of the United Kingdom. He still occupies 10 Downing Street. His principal aide during the 2016 Brexit campaign was Dominic Cummings, an obsessive anti-European political campaigner. Cummings insists that if Johnson stays in Downing Street it will be increasingly difficult to remove him.

The succession fight will begin almost as comedy, as each would-be prime minister says the same things and offers identical policies on Europe, on tax, on culture wars, on privatising public services and on social policy.

It will soon descend into chaos, with no one MP emerging with the star quality needed to lead a confused, divided nation facing a permanent economic crisis – and a GDP that will go down as a result of Brexit according to the forecasts of all respected economic thinkers and policy foundations.

In that scenario, the Tory Party might return to the man who is still prime minister – Boris Johnson. Yes, he may be unfaithful. Yes, he may be an “unrepentent and inveterate liar”, to use the expression of the former French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann. Yes, he thinks only of tomorrow’s headlines with no long term vision for a disunited kingdom.

But he has won big elections – twice as Mayor of London – and then in 2019, the biggest ever general election victory in Tory Party history.

So might it be that as all the candidates cancel each other and sound identical with none having ideas, vision or words for the nation’s needs, an exhausted Tory Party reverts to the man who won power for them and who is still in constitutional and legal terms: the prime minister?

This may seem unlikely, but the career of Boris Johnson is based as much on fiction and suspension of belief as fact and reason.

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In all events, Britain will remain firmly under the control of leaders hostile to the European Union. The hope that the end of Boris Johnson means the end for Brexit is wishful thinking.

Last week began with a speech by the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, as I wrote here, saying that Labour would not seek to reverse the 2016 plebisicte. There would be no return to the European Union, no entry into its single market like Norway or Switzerland, or a return to the Customs Union. Labour is little different from the Conservative Party in saying “no” to Europe.

A new Conservative prime minister (or after the next general election, a new Labour PM) will support a policy of isolationism and a rejection of full partnership with Britain’s neighbours and friends on the continent.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister of Europe