Boris Johnson faces a rocky road

Boris Johnson faces a rocky road
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Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and the former British foreign secretary, who trenchantly campaigned for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016, will succeed Theresa May as the next British prime minister today. The man, who as a child wanted to be “king of the world,” won the backing of a majority of the Conservative Party grassroots members, easily defeating current British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. The “blond ambition” of Johnson will have to settle for the less lofty title of prime minister of the United Kingdom, yet he faces challenges that are more pressing than of any British incumbent since the Second World War.

He inherits not only a party torn apart by the Europe question that has haunted the conservatives since the 1950s but also a country that has grown weary of the toxic political debate around the vote to leave the European Union and subsequent inability to agree upon the right course of exiting. In the House of Commons, Johnson only holds a wafer thin majority of two. With more than a hint of supreme irony, it was Johnson himself who greatly contributed to the current state of British politics.

In early 2016, as London mayor, Johnson decided to throw his lot in with the campaign to leave the European Union to the surprise of many, never expecting to win. In that referendum campaign, he mastered the art of providing simple, if not wholly true, answers to complex questions on how Britain would extract itself from almost 50 years of membership. Prior to the 2016 referendum, Johnson even argued in a text message to David Cameron, another prime minister felled by the Europe question, that Britain could leave but remain a member of the European Council, the policymaking European Union body of heads of state and government.


Later as British foreign secretary under Theresa May and then as a vocal backbencher after he resigned that position without any notable accomplishments, Johnson had repeatedly attacked her negotiated withdrawal agreement with the European Union and only voted for it on the condition that she would resign if it were passed. May fell on her sword but the Brexit problem nonetheless remains unresolved.

Across the English Channel, the election victory and arrival of Johnson at 10 Downing Street was greeted with warnings of the “challenging times ahead” from the European Union. As a sign of the likely difficulty Johnson will face in reopening Brexit negotiations with Brussels, European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier made clear the European Union was fully committed to the ratification of the withdrawal agreement. There is very little appetite to crap that deal, and Johnson will head to Brussels with few friends at the negotiating table. Many European Union leaders blame him for the Brexit mess by making false promises during the 2016 referendum.

Indeed, one European Union commissioner, in his scathing blog post directed at Johnson hours before he was crowned the Conservative Party leader, compared his “unrealistic promises” to those made by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose own empty rhetoric was indeed blamed for ushering in the rise of Vladimir Putin. Vytenis Andriukaitis of Lithuania wrote that this is “a different Boris, of course, but there was something in the way of doing politics that was similar” with “unrealistic promises” that ignored “economic rationales and rational decisions.”

Across the Atlantic, warmer words flowed from the White House, where Johnson was referred to as “Britain Trump” in remarks by the American president, who implied that the success Johnson was as a result of the similarities between the two men in their style of politics. “They like me over there. That is what they wanted,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE declared this week. “Boris is good. He will get it done.” Yet, despite this public display of support for Johnson, there is no guarantee that a change of British prime ministers will repair the damage to the “special relationship” between London and Washington, made worse by the recent leak of unflattering British diplomatic cables about the Trump administration that led to the resignation of Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, whose fate was sealed after Trump tweeted that he is a “pompous fool.”

May, who was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump in early 2017, tried and ultimately failed to gain favor with the unpredictable American leader and was a frequent target of scorn by Trump towards the end of her premiership. Johnson, as British foreign secretary, pleaded with Trump not to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. Those pleas were fruitless, but the efforts are considered the high point of his tenure as foreign secretary.

It remains to be seen whether the new prime minister will have more success at influencing the Trump administration on a whole range of pressing international issues where others with much greater political experience, including the current French and German leaders, have failed. However, the most pressing task in the weeks ahead will be the unfinished business of Brexit and whether or not Britain will crash out of the largest trade bloc in the world with or without a deal before the end of October.

Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.