Boris Johnson and the Brexit end game

Like swimming in shark-infested waters, Great Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson faces daunting challenges as he seeks to deliver on his bold pledge to exit the European Union (EU) by Oct. 31. Bizarrely, the most dangerous predators circling Johnson are not Brussels bureaucrats but members of his own parliamentary Conservative Party. 

So if most conservative members of Parliament regard Johnson as a deceitful, unreliable, publicity-seeking buffoon, why did they vote to make him the number one candidate to succeed Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayThe US needs a Secretary of Loneliness EU pushes Brexit deadline back to Jan. 31 Hold the Brexit Champagne MORE as prime minister?

The answer is simple: Johnson is wildly popular with the rank-and-file of the Conservative Party and is universally viewed as the only person who can save the world’s oldest political party from utter oblivion in the next election, whenever it occurs.       

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Since the Brexit vote three years ago, Britain has undergone a political upheaval that has dramatically altered the political structure of what heretofore had been the most stable democracy in the Western world. May’s disastrous premiership led Britain to humiliation abroad at the hands of the EU and political polarization at home, owing to her utter failure to deliver on her election pledge that “Brexit means Brexit.”

The polarization over Brexit — which has become the defining issue in British politics — derives from the fact that fully a third of Conservative voters absolutely hate Brexit, while a third of the Labour voters love it. This led to world-class “straddling” on the part of May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Resultantly, the angry dissidents in both parties came to view their leaders as weaklings and began to seek “other options” among people who shared their particular political passion.

The “other options” had spectacular impact on Britain’s recent EU elections: The long moribund Liberal Party found new life as a staunchly anti-Brexit party, and the Brexit Party, newly invented by its leader Nigel Fararge, found stunning success as a magnet for Conservatives who wanted “Brexit right now.”

So, who is Boris Johnson and what are his chances to “square the Brexit circle,” thus saving his party and country from looming disaster?

Johnson is a classic British elitist — the right schools (Eton, Oxford) and family connections — who possesses the “common touch” to a remarkable degree, as evidenced by his improbable feat of being a Conservative twice elected as mayor of London.

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Like his idol Winston Churchill, who, pre-1940, was distrusted by Conservatives and widely viewed as “erratic and unreliable,” Johnson likely is prime minister only because of a dire national emergency. As everyone knows, Churchill confounded his detractors and magnificently rose to the occasion. As for Johnson, only time will tell — and he has precious little time between now and Oct. 31, the EU-imposed deadline for Britain either to accept the “deal” offered to May or cease to be a member of the EU.        

Commanding only a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, Johnson adroitly promised the anti-Brexit element in his party that he would seek a “better deal” from the EU, while reassuring the pro-Brexit element that Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31 if he doesn’t get one.        

Now the EU is on the horns of a dilemma of their own making. Repeatedly they have told Britain there will be no renegotiation of the “deal” offered to May. However, they know that deal was thrice resoundingly rejected by Parliament, and now they face a prime minister who is an enthusiastic “Brexiteer” who saw that the sky didn’t fall after the initial referendum and doesn’t believe it will fall now.

Slowly it is dawning on the fractious EU that they have badly misplayed their hand, and that in this modern “Battle of Britain” it is they — and not the United Kingdom — that ultimately will be the biggest loser.

William Moloney is Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado education commissioner whose focus was education reform keyed to competition and choice. Follow on Twitter @CentennialCCU.