The Boris Johnson era gets under way Wednesday as the colourful politician becomes Britain’s prime minister and faces the daunting challenge of pulling the country out of the European Union in just three months.
Mr. Johnson handily defeated Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt for the Conservative Party leadership Tuesday, taking 66 per cent of the vote among Tory party members. He’ll replace Theresa May as prime minister late Wednesday and immediately begin the process of assembling a cabinet.
The former mayor of London and long-time journalist won the leadership contest largely on the strength of a “do or die” commitment to taking Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, with or without a withdrawal agreement. While that stand has resonated with the party faithful, it has alarmed officials in Brussels and prompted a backlash among some Conservative MPs who worry about a no-deal Brexit. Business groups have also urged Mr. Johnson to reach an agreement with the EU and avoid the economic harm of abruptly cutting ties to the country’s largest trading partner.
On Tuesday Mr. Johnson stuck to his Brexit boosterism and vowed to “get Brexit done” by Oct 31. “We are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of ‘can-do.’ … And like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity,” he told a gathering of party members shortly after the leadership results were announced at a conference centre in London.
For Tory MPs such as Mark Francois, Mr. Johnson is a breath of fresh air after years of dithering under Ms. May, who negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU only to see it rejected by the British Parliament three times. Mr. Johnson has said that while he would like to sign an agreement with the EU before Oct. 31, Ms. May’s deal was dead.
“Boris Johnson is going to make a cracking prime minister for this country,” said Mr. Francois, who opposed Ms. May’s agreement because he said he believed it would have kept the country too closely tied to the EU. “I think he’s a leader. I think he’s charismatic and it’s going to be fun. … I’m even more confident now that we’re going to leave on Halloween.”
Tory MP Priti Patel said the country and Parliament have been arguing about Brexit ever since the 2016 referendum, when 52 per cent of voters backed leaving the EU. “We now have to move on,” she said. “We have to meet that date, we have to leave.” When asked if Mr. Johnson could realistically meet the Oct. 31 deadline, she replied: “The answer is yes because we will be behind him, supporting him to get on and get the job done.” Ms. Patel and other hard line Brexiteers, who had been largely shunned by Ms. May, are now expected to have prominent roles in Mr. Johnson’s cabinet and Brexit negotiating team.
But there are also growing indications that Mr. Johnson will face a tough time pushing a no-deal Brexit through the House of Commons, much like the trouble Ms. May faced trying to win approval for her deal. The problem is that the Tories don’t hold a majority of seats and govern thanks to the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has 10 MPs. Even with DUP support, Mr. Johnson’s government will have a working majority of just three seats – and that’s expected to drop to two next week after a by-election in Wales, which the Tories are likely to lose.
Three junior cabinet ministers have resigned in the past few days to protest Mr. Johnson’s willingness to consider a no-deal departure, and as many as four senior ministers, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, plan to step down Wednesday before Mr. Johnson takes office. None of the ministers were likely to be included in Mr. Johnson’s cabinet anyway, but their public departures highlight the deep divisions within the party.
“I think he has to make a policy shift on Brexit,” said Margot James, one of the junior ministers who resigned. She added that there wasn’t enough time to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement before Oct. 31. “And if he is not prepared to give [the talks] longer, then that means he will go the default route of leaving without a deal, and that will divide us further,” she said. “Indeed there’s a majority in Parliament, to which I belong, that will do everything possible to prevent that from happening.”
Officials in Brussels took a wary approach to Mr. Johnson’s leadership win Tuesday but insisted they would not reopen Ms. May’s deal. “The United Kingdom reached an agreement with the European Union, and the European Union will stick to that agreement,” Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the European Commission, told a news conference. "This is the best deal possible.”
There are plenty of other challenges facing Mr. Johnson, including an escalating dispute with Iran over its seizure of a British oil tanker and managing his close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, who is not popular in Britain. And while Mr. Johnson has a colourful history of gaffes and missteps on the world stage, he’ll be hoping that his self-deprecating humour and ability to attract good advisers will help him overcome the many doubters who question his ability to serve as prime minister. He took an early stab at that humour Tuesday, telling the party gathering: “I know that there will be people around the place who will question the wisdom of your decision. And there may even be some people here who still wonder quite what they have done.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.