A Nixon in China Moment? What Boris Johnson Could Mean for Brexit

Political maverick Boris Johnson appears unbeatable in the race to replace Theresa May as prime minister. But he's an enigma and anything could be possible with him at the helm -- even an unexpected U-turn on Brexit.

Boris Johnson is the clear frontrunner to replace Theresa May.
Andrew Parsons/ i-Images/ Polaris/ Studio X

Boris Johnson is the clear frontrunner to replace Theresa May.

By in London

Suddenly, they're all back. Andrea Leadsom, the former leader of Britain's House of Commons, who sees herself as a matriarchal figure for the country. Michael Gove, who stays loyal only as long as he has to. And, of course, Boris Johnson, who's going to ram Brexit through because, well, he's Boris Johnson.

Now these conservatives, along with eight, 10 or 12 others, are back where they started: at the beginning of an epic battle for Britain's highest government office. It's as if the last three years, this whole self-destructive phase and Theresa May never even happened. History is repeating itself. It proved to be a farce the first time around, so how will things turn out the second time around?

It may have to be rewritten to understand the enormity of what is happening in the United Kingdom: Almost exactly three years ago, the British voted by a narrow majority to leave the European Union. The country's withdrawal from the EU should have happened eight weeks ago, but it had to be postponed at the last minute because the country would have fallen into an even deeper political crisis if it had not. The next and possibly final deadline is five months from now. "Please don't waste this time," EU Council President Donald Tusk had recently told them.

And the British?

The British have deposed their prime minister and will now take six to eight weeks to decide on a successor. Yet only a fraction of the British people will actually have a vote in the process. The fate of Britain's 66 million people lies in the hands of the approximately 120,000 Conservative Party members who tend to be rich, white and old and who also disproportionately voted in favor of Brexit.

As such, the favorites are primarily the politicians who have convincingly demonstrated their hardline credentials over the past three years -- with the court jester Johnson apparently in the lead. With him, at least, the UK would be in a better mood as it slid toward its fate. But before things really got started, most took off for a 10-day break.

Because, well, why not.

The Final Round

At the end of this week, once Donald Trump returns to the U.S. following his state visit to London and May steps down as the Tory Party leader, the power struggle over her successor -- and also the final round for Brexit -- will be fully unleashed. It's already clear now that the field of candidates vying for the role will be broader than has usually been the case in the past. Half of May's cabinet, several ex-ministers that she once fired and likely also a number of backbenchers will enter the race. According to sources within the Conservative Party, May has set the bar so low that practically everyone believes they're up to the job.

One thing, though, should be clear to all of them: There may be a lot to win in the grand Brexit lottery. But the chances of winding up like Theresa May are far higher.

The scenes unfolding in Britain these days are nothing if not surreal. Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party landed one-third of the votes in the election for the European Parliament, despite only being founded in January, and the Conservatives were relegated to the status of a splinter party, with a result in the single digits. Indeed, the entire political system in Britain is undergoing a tectonic shift, but the country has instead focused its attention on lassi shakes with cannabis and the benefits of having several ovens in the kitchen.

A whole flurry of candidates has been inviting the British press into their homes, where they have introduced their wives, chatted about youthful indiscretions or childhood privations. The Conservatives, who have the reputation of having lost touch with the ordinary British, are trying to show a more human side. The result is that even a health secretary admitting a fondness for Dutch caramel waffles is worth a headline.

There's only one candidate who doesn't need to do all this: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the man known to the world simply as "Boris." He has no need to introduce himself. Johnson, who will soon turn 55, has been flaunting his life on a silver platter for decades. The British are familiar with almost all his escapades, scandals, lies, and yet -- or perhaps because of it -- the Conservatives love him.

A Clear Favorite

Johnson is a big favorite as May's successor among bookmakers and Tory members. If he can succeed in winning the support of the Conservatives in parliament, it's unlikely anyone will be able to defeat him. Except Boris himself. And he's got experience with that.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson? The word in Brussels is that it would be a "horror scenario" for the rest of the EU. But for Britain, a circle would be closing. Under Boris Johnson, Brexit would ultimately come full circle. Few have done more to stir up hatred toward the EU in Britain than he has.

Long before the coining of terms like "Brexit" and "fake news," former journalist Johnson was fond of presenting his countrymen with a grotesquely distorted image of the EU. As the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph between 1989 and 1994, he never missed an opportunity to describe the EU as an uncontrollable, regulations-obsessed, borderline dictatorship. His columns carried headlines like "Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same" or "Snails are fish, says EU." He has said that the EU's agricultural policy is worse than anything Stalin ever produced that the European border regime invites drug smugglers, terrorists and migrants of all kinds.

Like most other aspects of Johnson's life, it was not always meant seriously, but it did reach the country's everyday people, the media and politicians. Within Johnson's own party, the long-marginalized opponents of the EU felt affirmed. And the distorted images also helped longtime EU opponent Nigel Farage build up his own UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Johnson, writes his ex-colleague and biographer Sonia Purnell, was instrumental in making skepticism of the EU "an attractive and emotionally resonant cause for the Right." Johnson admitted so himself years later in an interview with the BBC. "(I) was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England. Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory Party ... and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power." It never left.

Making a Lack of Principles His Principle

And yet it's still not clear whether Johnson is really a convinced opponent of the EU or if he just pretends he is. In the political career that has followed, he has, at some point, espoused the polar opposite of every position he holds. As mayor of London, he fought for the rights of gays and lesbians and migrants, only to turn around and later write in his columns of "piccaninnies" and mock Muslim women as "walking letter boxes." He praised elitism and then campaigned against "the cynicism of the elite." He appreciates Trump and at the same time doesn't appreciate him. He's embraces the business community, only to yell "fuck business!" a short time later.

Johnson has even managed to make his lack of principles seem principled. Politics is little more than a game for a man whose friends say has an "excessive desire to be liked." And in that game, everything goes -- as long as he's the one who ultimately comes out ahead.

As such, it's fitting that Johnson prepared two articles ahead of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 -- one containing a fervent plea for staying in the EU and the other a passionate appeal to withdraw from the union. Only very late in the game did he choose the Brexit side, primarily because it seemed more auspicious for his long-term goal: becoming prime minister and moving into 10 Downing Street. He didn't have a Brexit plan nor did he think he would ever need one. The fact that the EU opponents prevailed in the end and that his loyal minion Michael Gove subsequently dropped him, caught him off guard. He had to let Theresa May take the reins first.

Now Johnson wants to have another go. The biggest obstacle on his path to leadership are the approximately 300 Tory members of parliament in the House of Commons. Starting on June 10, they will initiate a process not unlike a game of musical chairs, the goal of which is to reduce the candidate field to two. Those two candidates will then travel across the country soliciting votes from Tory Party members.

'Black, Black Hearts'

Many EU-skeptic MPs will not have forgotten the fact that Johnson only temporarily opposed May's Brexit deal and ultimately voted in favor of it. Some may even have a column in the back of their minds in which Johnson described EU skeptics as "men and women with black, black hearts." Some may be more inclined to back uncompromising Brexiteers like Dominic Raab or May's perpetual rival Andrea Leadsom rather than an unreliable and farcical figure like Johnson. The mother of three lost her battle for leadership over foolish remarks about May's lack of children in 2016, but she has been scrapping her way back ever since.

Johnson's best argument is that he once took London, the stronghold of the left, by storm and that he is equally capable of standing up to Nigel Farage on the right and socialist Jeremy Corbyn on the left. The panic over the possibility of losing power is so great among Tories that this line of argumentation might convince them.

But what if Johnson actually does become prime minister? Johnson, who has never been particularly interested in details, still doesn't have a platform. Although, he's been making digs against May with relish through his Daily Telegraph column in recent months, he has largely limited himself to appealing to his compatriot's sense of national pride: A country in which Oxford College on its own has won more Nobel Prizes than all of France combined, a country that exports more television series to the world than the rest of Europe -- that country, he intimates, is destined for something greater than merely being part of some dusty 28-member club.

But what might he do differently than May? Nobody knows, especially given that her departure will do little to change the balance of power in parliament. The informal coalition of the Tories with the Northern Irish ultranationalists of the DUP still has a five-vote majority. Almost every conceivable Brexit compromise has already been considered and then taken back off the table by the House of Commons in recent months. Moreover, the EU has repeatedly made clear that there will be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement.

For the time being, Johnson -- and any other potential prime minister -- only has two bold options available. As he himself once advised Theresa May, he could, like Moses, go to the "Pharaoh in Brussels" and demand that it "let my people go." Without any agreement and with all the economic and social shocks that a no-deal scenario would entail.

The only problem is that parliament has already opposed that nuclear option by a large majority. If Johnson ignored that, he would risk an immediate vote of no confidence. It would mean potentially losing an office he has worked toward his whole life.

Will Boris Flip-Flop?

It's thus conceivable that he could take the opposite path and call for new elections or a second Brexit referendum, which would presumably have a different outcome this time around. The fact that he has already ruled out doesn't necessarily mean all that much. In London, there's talk of Johnson having a possible "Nixon in China moment." It took a person who hated communism like U.S. President Richard Nixon to negotiate with China's leadership with impunity. According to the same pattern, they argue that it would take a Brexiteer to stop Brexit.

It's possibly the kind of thing a player like Johnson would do. It is precisely this opportunism, this willingness to go the way the wind blows that makes it possible for Johnson to reinvent himself, says Camilla Cavendish, the government's former head of strategy.

It would be a moment for the history books. The kind of moment Johnson has basically been waiting for his entire life.

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