Raphael: Boris Johnson gets his chance to fail, too

Therese Raphael

This time it’s for real. Theresa May did not exactly say when she would leave 10 Downing Street, but on Thursday she promised to name her exit date in early June.

The question is what difference changing leader will make for the Conservative party. After a potentially messy leadership contest (one is already under way), the party will likely rally behind a new chief – only to find that the old problems are still with it.

When you consider May’s ability to defy political gravity, it’s tempting to wonder if she means it. She has survived an election disaster, a no-confidence vote by her MPs, historic parliamentary defeats, a long list of resignations, open revolt from cabinet ministers, and an attempt to change the party rules just so she could be pushed out a few months early.

She previously promised to leave before the next election and then after her Brexit deal won approval from parliament; now she will step down regardless.

It was always possible she would wriggle out of her earlier vaguely worded pledges. But the pressure to give a firm commitment was becoming irresistible. The 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs that presides over leadership selection looked poised to change the rules this time to allow a second confidence vote within a year if May refused to go. Her closest government allies, and former advisers, were publicly pressing her to call it quits. An extraordinary meeting of senior Conservative activists from around the country on 15 June is expected to vote to remove her; though non-binding, it would be a humiliating gesture.

Her actual departure date depends on how long it will take the Tories to settle on a new leader (a few weeks would seem the minimum given that the party membership is likely to vote on two candidates selected by Tory MPs). Still, Britain will almost certainly have a new Conservative leader, and prime minister, this summer.

The timing for the leadership battle could not be more awkward. Next week, the Conservatives must endure the torture of a European Parliamentary election they never wanted, swore to avoid, and in which they will almost certainly be trounced by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

After that humiliation, another: May has promised to bring her Brexit plan back to parliament for a fourth vote. Her hope is that the European elections will focus minds on getting Brexit over the line. That looks unlikely. If, as Nigel Farage is fond of saying in his stump speeches, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over for the same result, what would four failed votes say?

Then, Donald Trump is coming for a state visit in early June; a Brexit-supporting president who has reigned defiant will face a lame duck prime minister who failed to deliver it. She will probably have to endure his praise for Boris Johnson, a leadership contender whom Trump admires, criticism over Britain’s decision to parlay with China’s Huawei, and no doubt other indignities.

What will the Conservative Party get in return for dumping yet another leader over Europe? Catharsis, perhaps. The only thing that members seem to agree on at this point is that May should go. There will be hope that her successor can forge a new Brexit policy, or at least unite disparate factions over some souped-up version of the one that has been rejected.

That seems wishful thinking. Changing leader will not change the parliamentary arithmetic; Britain’s legislature has not been able to agree on any path forward.

Neither has the Tory party itself. A large number of its supporters fiercely desire a no-deal Brexit, something parliament has legislated to avoid and another part of the party regards as lunacy. Even so, as I wrote earlier this week, that outcome looks increasingly possible.

Replacing May does not change the fact that there will be no trade deal with Europe of any kind without an agreement that keeps the Irish border open. It will not suddenly make the European Union allow Britain to choose which of the four single-market freedoms it wishes to have and at what price.

When Britain’s current extension expires on 31 Oct., the choice will still be what it is today: pass a deal that looks a lot like the terms of divorce May negotiated, leave without a deal (most likely requiring a new vote) or decide not to quit at all. Of course, the EU could decide to keep extending, but how would that make a Brexit-supporting party leader look?

One hears over and over from May’s detractors that she did not really believe in leaving the EU since she herself voted to remain. By choosing a true believer for a leader, the obstacles to Brexit will melt away. That will quickly prove unfounded. May’s departure may be for real. But reality can look a lot harsher closer up.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe. 2019, The Washington Post New Service.

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