Boris Johnson Gets Back in the Brexit Game

The New Tork Times The New Tork Times
The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, at the United Nations on Monday. He threw the Conservatives into turmoil over the weekend with an essay on the British exit from the European Union.

LONDON — What is Boris Johnson up to this time?

Over the weekend, Mr. Johnson, Britain’s flamboyant foreign secretary, published a 4,000-word essay in the conservative Daily Telegraph that laid out an agenda designed to appeal to hard-line enthusiasts pressing for a clean break with the European Union in 2019.

The article has reignited the fierce battle over Europe within Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party and seemed intended as a shot across the bow ahead of her long-awaited speech on Europe on Friday in Florence, Italy. Mrs. May is expected to take a softer line there on leaving the bloc, though just how soft is a matter of speculation.

On a visit to Canada on Monday, Mrs. May sought to play down the furor over the article, saying, “Boris is Boris,” but that is unlikely to calm the warring factions in her party.

It also left open the question of what Mr. Johnson hoped to get out of staking out a hard-line position on Brexit at a time when the party as a whole seemed to be unifying around a softer stance, and at what cost to his party and to a country just beginning to grapple with the reality of leaving the European Union?

From Mr. Johnson’s perspective, his intervention makes a certain amount of sense, as he is almost certainly playing an intricate political game aimed at snatching the prime ministership when the time comes.

A ferociously ambitious politician who loves the spotlight, he has been a spectator while Britain’s Brexit negotiating position has been thrashed out by Mrs. May, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and David Davis, the chief negotiator on withdrawal.

“Boris has been sidelined in this negotiation,” said Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson.” “And if you are shut out of the great project of our times, you really are sidelined. You become entirely invisible.”

Mr. Gimson said, “This is Boris saying, ‘You can’t ignore me.’” But he noted that Johnson’s article was carefully phrased to avoid overtly contradicting Mrs. May’s policy, even if it struck a markedly different tone, generating days of publicity.

His intervention staked out a clear position in the Conservative Party ahead of Mrs. May’s speech. If she does, as expected, strike a conciliatory tone with Europe, particularly over the payment of tens of billions as a “divorce bill,” that could unlock stalled negotiations with the remaining 27 European Union nations.

With a party conference just around the corner, Mr. Johnson is making himself available as an alternative to a large segment of the party that would see Mrs. May’s softening stance as a betrayal. “He is offering himself as a different kind of leader, who would negotiate in a different spirit,” Mr. Gimson said.

In some respects, the surprise is that Mr. Johnson — who lately has found himself in Nigeria and on a hurricane-hit Caribbean island while colleagues in London debate withdrawal from the European Union, the one policy that matters to him — has been so quiet for so long.

In recent months his low profile has taken him from leader-in-waiting to also-ran, according to one recent poll among the activists of the Conservative party who will ultimately pick its next leader. That showed him to be well behind Jacob Rees-Mogg, a caricature upper-class Conservative who is not even a minister, let alone in the cabinet.

This is where the politicking comes in. Now a pariah to pro-Europeans, Mr. Johnson undoubtedly sees that he needs to be popular among Brexit supporters if he is retain a chance of succeeding Mrs. May.

If and when that contest happens, Mr. Johnson does not need to be the leading candidate, just one of the top two chosen by Conservative lawmakers – a big chunk of whom are Brexit enthusiasts. At that point, the voting goes to Conservative Party members, who also tend to favor Brexit.

Mr. Johnson will have a chance to rally party members to his cause at next month’s annual convention, where he usually gives a humorous and rousing speech to a standing ovation. It will be a much harder occasion for Mrs. May, a poor public speaker who must explain her failure in the June election while reassuring hard-liners that she can deliver a successful Brexit.

That Mr. Johnson remains in his post is a testament to Mrs. May’s vulnerability. She knows it would take just 48 of her own lawmakers to provoke a leadership contest that she would probably lose, and Mr. Johnson has several dozen potential supporters in Parliament.

All this has deepened Mrs. May’s woes over the Brexit talks, which were already legion.

In a sign of the tensions, Britain’s top Brexit official, Oliver Robbins, left Mr. Davis’s department and moved to the Cabinet Office to work more directly for Mrs. May. The BBC reported that there had been tension between Mr. Robbins and Mr. Davis.

Meanwhile, in a stream of Twitter posts, Dominic Cummings, who directed the official pro-Brexit referendum campaign last year, described the situation as a “shambles.”

More pragmatic voices are appealing to Mrs. May to start preparing British voters for the trade-offs that most analysts see as unavoidable if Britain is to avert a potentially calamitous “cliff edge” departure from the bloc without any deal.

Yet a significant shift from Mrs. May — like calling for a lengthy transition period after the March 2019 deadline, during which Britain would continue to pay into the European Union’s budget — now looks unlikely before her party convention, pushing back further a tight negotiating timetable. That will heighten concern for businesses that have little idea of what to expect when Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019.

Given her domestic constraints, Mrs. May’s speech will not go far enough to satisfy European Union leaders, predicted Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group. He cited Mr. Johnson’s intervention as one of the constraints upon her.

“His article made no mention of a transitional phase and rejected the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s plan to pay for Single Market access,” Mr. Rahman wrote.

“While Johnson’s intervention will inevitably be seen as a leadership bid by his critics,” he added, “it is probably more of a marker; a reminder to the prime minister that she will face a difficult conference and that she should not freeze him out of the Brexit process. “