Brexit Chaos Theresa May's Days Are Numbered. Now What?

Even if British Prime Minister Theresa May's last attempt to get her much-maligned withdrawal agreement through parliament succeeds, she is unlikely to keep her job. But whoever comes next probably won't manage to defuse the crisis.

A poster of Theresa May: Few believe the Brexit problem will be easier to solve once the British prime minister is out of office.
Wolfgang Rattay / REUTERS

A poster of Theresa May: Few believe the Brexit problem will be easier to solve once the British prime minister is out of office.

By


Boris Johnson recently had his hair cut short. In the past few weeks, he has visibly lost weight. He has even learned to hold his tongue. When the former British foreign secretary left parliament in Westminster last Tuesday, he was, as always, confronted by journalists. But the man who otherwise never avoids a microphone pushed his ski hat down and walked off.

Since then, London's political pundits have been convinced that Johnson is up to something. They claim he's merely waiting for the right moment to catapult himself back into the spotlight. That day, it seems, is not so far away.

After another bruising week in the United Kingdom, the end game has started. Not only for Brexit, but also for the prime minister. Theresa May herself pointed out in front of parliament on Wednesday that her days as prime minister might soon be numbered.

That much was already clear to anyone who saw Theresa May's unabashedly populistic televised address on Wednesday, with which she tried to deflect any blame from herself. Or who has read her listless letter to European Union leaders, in which she almost beseechingly requested an extension to the misery. Or who has listened to her level-headed fellow party member Dominic Grieve, who said that, because of her, he has "never been more ashamed to be a Conservative."

"She may stagger through London for another few months," says a long-time ally, predicting that, even if she manages to push through the widely hated withdrawal agreement at the last moment, "she can longer save herself."

During the biggest crisis in postwar United Kingdom history, many leading politicians are ever more blatantly positioning themselves to succeed May. This includes a handful of incumbent ministers, who should have their hands full preventing their country from drifting into chaos. It reflects the situation's core problem: While Brexit is a foreign-policy issue for the rest of Europe, in London it revolves primarily around a battle for domestic power.

Backstage at Westminster, a shameful performance is taking place. No matter what happens, everything suggests that this power struggle will make the perpetual-motion machine that is Brexit harder to solve. Considering the way things are going, the second phase of negotiations with the EU -- should they, at some point, occur -- will likely be carried out by a Brexit hardliner.

Europe needs to prepare itself for the worst.

Contenders in the Wings

Former Brexit Minister Dominic Raab was among the first to put himself up for May's job. At a conservative think tank in mid-March, the shrewd 45-year-old gave a speech about "unleashing the great British underdog." His supporters launched a Facebook page called "Ready for Raab." Its appeal, however, has remained modest. Thus far, only 114 people have become fans.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid have been subtler. Both were recently seen in the government quarter apparently wooing members of the party over breakfast or a glass of wine. Both are supposedly recruiting employees for an election campaign.

And both are trying, somewhat clumsily, to rid themselves of their moderate image to appeal to their party's right-wing margins: Hunt by comparing the EU to the Soviet Union, Javid by denying a British woman who joined Islamic State the right to return home from Syria. But the fact that the 19-year-old recently lost her newborn in a refugee camp dealt a heavy blow to Javid's leadership ambitions. Suddenly the home secretary, the first Muslim to have one of the country's top posts, seemed like a heartless technocrat.

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Aside from Raab, Hunt and Javid, at least six other prominent Tories have been ogling the move into 10 Downing Street. The Times of London wrote that it was May's own fault that countless backbenchers were seriously considering running as her successor. It quoted a conservative lawmaker as saying that the prime minister's questionable performance had made others believe they would be suitable for the office as well.

But Boris Johnson is considered the most likely to land the position. The fact that the former leader of the Brexit campaign seems to embarrass himself every time he opens his mouth doesn't seem to bother a large contingent of Conservative voters. On the contrary. People look up to the 54-year-old when he describes Muslims as looking like a "bank robber" or "letter boxes," or when he claims money spent solving old child-abuse cases was cash "spaffed up a wall."

This week, several female Tory lawmakers said they would prefer to leave the party than serve under Johnson. But the party base, which has drifted to the right during the Brexit years, would doubtless vote for Johnson. They love him for his vision of a "glorious future" for a UK, that, once free of the EU's shackles, will find its way back to greatness.

It's not clear if Johnson will ever be able to demonstrate how that is supposed to happen. According to Tory party statues, it is up to the parliamentarians to reduce the number of applicants in a multi-stage voting process. The base would then be allowed to vote between the two remaining candidates.

Boris Johnson, who is good at talking but less good at maneuvering, will thus carefully consider his behavior in the coming days and weeks. And he will have to find a way to help topple May without too much blowback falling on him alone.

A Leader On Her Way Out

Even if May emphasized this week that, as "prime minister," she will not go along with a years-long delay in Brexit, it is unlikely she will go of her own accord. However, her room to maneuver has, since the end of this week, shrunken to a minimum.

Early this coming week, May will make what will presumably be her last attempt to force the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU through parliament. If she succeeds, the EU will reward her country with several weeks of additional time to implement Brexit technically.

If that happens, May will become the person who carried out the UK's divorce from the EU. But hardly anyone believes this would save her. A member of London's political apparatus said, "Maybe she will experience another honeymoon -- but it wouldn't last more than three minutes."

Only a small minority believe that May's situation will really change after a third vote. It's much more likely that, in the coming week, parliament will hand her a third, and final, defeat. After that, the lawmakers would then take de facto control of government business to avoid a no-deal scenario, one that would be grim for all of Europe.

The United Kingdom would need to ask the EU as soon as possible for, likely, a nine-month, but possibly a two-year extension of the Brexit deadline. At the EU summit on Thursday, several heads of state ruled out that possibility -- but nobody believes that, if worse comes to worst, the EU would actually push the UK off the cliff.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier recently named the price for a generous extension: The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland need to be willing to tie themselves much more tightly to the EU than had previously been planned, and stay in the common market and in the customs union. Alternatively, according to Barnier, London could carry out a new election or a second referendum.

It seems impossible that any of these scenarios could be carried out while Downing Street's current stubborn occupant remains in power. She has bound her fate too tightly to her deal. If Theresa May doesn't step down at that point, at the latest, the opposition will likely engineer another vote of no-confidence. This time, however, there might be enough rebels among the Tories to help push her out of power. In Downing Street, many are counting on the end being nigh. Tory parliamentarians are comparing the situation there, in all seriousness, to Hitler's last days in his bunker.

Few believe the Brexit problem will be easier to solve once May is out of office. "Whoever is Conservative leader after Theresa May -- Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Donald Trump -- Britain will still be in the same position, with a relatively weak negotiating hand facing a fairly united negotiating partner," columnist Daniel Finkelstein wrote in The Times of London.

That is especially relevant if the successor's name is Boris Johnson. During his three years of Brexit machinations, the former Brussels correspondent has revealed a shocking ignorance of the way the EU functions. His recommendation was always to stay hard so the EU would give in. So far, though, that strategy hasn't panned out.

People in Brussels are concerned they will have to tolerate the unpredictable political lunatic during the highly complex second phase of negotiations centering on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Moderate Brits are also worried about "BoJo." In any case, they can't expect him to by any better at bridging the deep gaps Brexit has dug in the country. Parliamentarian Anna Soubry recently put it this way: If Boris was to take over, "then God be with us."

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