Can Sheer Force of Personality Solve Brexit?

The most important part of Boris Johnson’s first speech as Britain’s new prime minister was right at the beginning:

I pay tribute to the fortitude and patience of my predecessor [Theresa May] and her deep sense of public service. But in spite of all her efforts, it has become clear that there are pessimists at home and abroad who think that after three years of indecision, that this country has become a prisoner to the old arguments of 2016 and that in this home of democracy we are incapable of honouring a basic democratic mandate. And so I am standing before you today to tell you, the British people, that those critics are wrong. The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters—they are going to get it wrong again.

It’s not very common, especially in the United States, where presidential politics is conspicuously regal, to see a newly elected head of state unceremoniously dispatch his predecessor and fellow partisan with a “thanks, but.” In the current context of British politics, however, Johnson’s curt adieu makes sense. Both major parties, Labour and Conservative, of which Johnson is a member, are deeply internally divided over Brexit. May, the austere daughter of a vicar, voted against leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. She was then, as prime minister, tasked with finding a way out of the EU while causing the least amount of damage to the UK and keeping her party, which consists of “establishment” conservatives like herself and Brexit insurgents, intact.

It didn’t go well. After losing her party’s parliamentary majority with a poorly timed general election, her painstakingly negotiated EU exit deal was thrice rejected by Parliament, including by hardline Brexiter MPs in her own party.

Johnson, the son of bohemian intellectual parents and a former two-term Mayor of London (the only Conservative ever to hold that post), was perhaps the second-most prominent member of the Leave campaign, behind Nigel Farage. The June 2016 referendum result put Johnson on firm political ground in a landscape made of quicksand. He had one foot firmly in the British ruling class and the other firmly among the triumphant hoi polloi. No surprise, then, that May appointed him foreign secretary in her first cabinet and charged him with leading Brexit negotiations with the EU.

Johnson served in that role until July 2018, when he resigned in a transparently self-promotional manner. In his public resignation letter, he criticized, in his typically unvarnished tone, May’s approach toward Brexit and EU negotiations. Britain is “headed for the status of colony” within the EU, he wrote, if May continues pursuing a “semi-Brexit.” This, of course, won him further adoration from Brexiters. But at least as important, in terms of his quest for power, was getting out of the way as practically every side in British politics was battering May’s government.

Johnson’s resignation letter and speech excerpt above also share a key similarity, which reveals a core element of his personality that may characterize his premiership. In his letter, he described May’s approach to negotiations as “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.” The vision of Brexit, representing “opportunity and hope,” is being “suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

Likewise, Johnson chose to use his first words as prime minister to frame Brexit as a battle of attitudes. He is the optimistic happy warrior slicing through pessimism and “indecision,” which surely includes most economists and most young educated Britons who are wondering what exactly England’s cranky grandparents signed them up for. It may also include a lot of Irish who are contemplating what sweet tidings a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could bring.

Johnson’s apparent belief that a successful Brexit hinges on attitude rather than specific policy issues is easy to regard as further proof of Britain’s descent into delusion. We’ll see how Johnson’s bumbling insouciance does against the harsh options he will have to face. For those predisposed to dislike him, you can savor the irony that a man reportedly driven by an insatiable neediness to be loved by all is almost certainly going to incur the wrath and hatred of a great many people. That is the price of leading his country out of its current paralysis.

But I would caution against underestimating the man. He is not Britain’s Donald Trump. (Don’t take my word for it: Does Trump saying so increase or decrease the likelihood that the comparison is apt?) His schtick of being a clumsy gabber is exactly that, a schtick, albeit an extremely effective one. After all, it fooled London, didn’t it?

And that is part of who he is. He is also exuberantly intelligent, and exceedingly educated. (Notice, America, that Britain’s version of “crazy” can at least quote Homer in the original Greek!) These will be assets— and potentially decisive ones—when he conducts negotiations.

Personality counts for something in politics. Johnson is known to adore Winston Churchill, who certainly wasn’t lacking in personality, and made ample and clever use of it. Johnson’s fate rests on whether he knows  Churchill also had more than that on his side—including quite a bit of luck.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.