British politics has been paralysed for three years by division over whether and how the country should leave the European Union, so it’s tempting to invest hope in a new prime minister who promises that his “spirit of can-do” will end the impasse in little more than three months. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson, who on Wednesday was to supplant Theresa May at No. 10 Downing Street, hasn’t offered a plausible plan for how he will extract Britain from its prolonged funk – and his record of empty promises on the subject suggest his government, and the country, are headed for more turbulence.
Johnson was one of the leaders of the pro-Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, offering wildly unrealistic forecasts of what Britain would gain from a break with Brussels. It was left to the stolid May to negotiate what turned out to be a far more costly and problematic deal with EU leaders, which Parliament has voted down three times. Johnson is promising to somehow revise the deal – though EU leaders insist they will not renegotiate – or lead Britain into a “no-deal” exit, which Parliament also has repeatedly voted against.
Johnson maintains that he can overcome the problem that has caused the most unrest in his Conservative Party, which is Brussels’s insistence that Britain remain in the EU customs union unless and until a way can be found to establish a seamless border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. But May’s government tried and failed to find such a fix, and Johnson does not appear to have any fresh ideas, other than to declare that if the United States could find a way to place men on the moon 50 years ago, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border”.
Such rhetoric is typical of Johnson, an intelligent and witty former journalist who is known for improvisation, inattention to detail and frequent false statements. In that, and in his populist appeals to older Britons who long for bygone days when the country was a world power, the new prime minister resembles President Donald Trump. But Johnson has mostly avoided Trump’s hateful appeals to racism and ugly disparagement of opponents; instead, he offers an upbeat vision of a country that can rise again if only, as he put it Tuesday, “we … believe in ourselves and what we can do”.
Americans can only hope he succeeds, as the continuance of Britain’s political gridlock will only further weaken the West at a time when its democratic values are under assault from foreign powers and domestic extremists. Unlike May, Johnson will begin with the support of Trump, whom he has been careful to court. But his hopes of swiftly concluding a free-trade deal with the United States as a complement to Brexit look far-fetched. Like a lot of Johnson’s ideas, a revived ‘special relationship’ between London and Washington sounds great; but the path for getting there is hard to discern.
© 2019, The Washington Post