The future looms menacingly for the United Kingdom, and the impending disaster is entirely the making of its own politicians. The cause of the present crisis is not so much the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, but the cack-handed manner in which ‘Brexit’ has been handled by members of Britain’s Parliament.
The about-to-leave prime minister, Theresa May, tried her best to get things on an even keel, but short-sighted politicians of her own and other parties did their successful best to make a shambles of the entire affair. What matters now in Britain is who becomes the next prime minister, and the signs are not good for the country, for Europe, and the wider world.
In order to examine the leadership contest it is necessary to briefly recapitulate the circumstances leading to the requirement to seek a new leader for the Conservative party which has been running the country shakily in a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. In 2017 Theresa May made a massive error in calling a general election which she thought wrongly would give her party a clear majority. In the House of Commons the governing party is that which has a majority of 326 out of 650 seats and the Conservatives got only 317. If it wanted to get into power, which is its main reason for taking any action whatever (as it is, to be fair, for the other parties), it had to accept the DUP as a partner, with its ten members of parliament.
This was the beginning of the downhill slide to chaos, greatly facilitated by the activities of several of May’s more devious colleagues on whom she imagined she could rely for support.
May’s primary mission was to get Britain out of the EU with the least damage possible, which was a difficult enough task without the complications caused by the disloyalty of many members of her government, two of whom, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, aspire to take over from May as prime minister on July 22. The BBC encapsulates their political careers by informing us that “Jeremy Hunt, who replaced Mr Johnson as foreign secretary last year, has more experience in government and has held more cabinet posts . . . Mr Johnson was the MP for Henley for seven years before being elected Mayor of London in 2008. He returned to Parliament as an MP… in 2015.” He resigned as foreign minister in July 2018.
In November 2018 May announced completion of an agreement to withdraw from the European Union, and it was accepted by the leaders of the other 27 EU countries. Common sense appeared to have prevailed — but not in the House of Commons (no pun intended), where the accord was rejected on January 15 by 432 to 202 votes. One might imagine this result would have ended the matter, and that Britain would have exited the EU on March 29, as agreed by Brussels, and that the whole affair would be over. But the ‘Withdrawal Agreement Bill’ went to two more votes and was again rejected in March by 391 to 242, and 344 to 286. The entire affair had developed into a farce. Which brings us to Boris Johnson.
When there are serious political contests it is wise to ignore the polls and consult the bookmakers, who are smart and make massive amounts of money from gamblers. The spokesman for the enormous bookmaking company Coral stated that “The betting very much suggests Boris Johnson is on course to be the next Prime Minister” and this is probably the best indicator. And it is the most frightening indicator, because Boris Johnson is an erratic menace who will not serve his country well.
As foreign minister (‘Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs’) from July 2016 to July 2018 he was a disaster, which was presciently forecast by The Economist’s Bagehot who observed that appointing him to the post “is like putting a baboon at the wheel of the Rolls Royce. Sure, the steering wheel, clutch and accelerator will keep the baboon happy and busy. But the price in collateral damage could be high.”
After his resignation the BBC observed that “Boris Johnson’s job as foreign secretary was to convince the world that Brexit did not mean Britain’s withdrawal from global affairs. It is a task that few historians will conclude Mr Johnson achieved.” Not only that, but Johnson upset, irritated and enraged numerous governments and individuals by his offbeat comments, before, during and after his tenure as the person “responsible for Britain’s relations with foreign governments and states.”
For example, when visiting Myanmar in 2017 it was reported that he “was inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Burma’s most sacred Buddhist sites, when he began reciting lines from The Road to Mandalay, including one which ran: ‘The temple bells they say / Come you back you English soldier ’ The UK ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, was forced to stop Johnson from reading out further lines, telling him it was ‘not appropriate’.” On June 20 the UK’s Daily Mail had a laugh about Johnson being “branded a ‘circus act’ by his former deputy after it emerged he had accused the French of acting like ‘turds’ over Brexit. The former foreign secretary faced a backlash after the Mail revealed he had been recorded making the crude remark as part of a documentary.”
On June 30 Business Insider noted that “Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for his previous articles referring to black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and calling gay people ‘bumboys,’ claiming his comments were ‘wholly satirical”, which is patent nonsense. He is a diplomatic loose cannon who in the words of the New York Times on June 29, has a “loose relationship with truth and principle”.
He has constantly reiterated that Britain will renegotiate the terms of Theresa May’s agreement, paying no attention to the flat statement by the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, that chief among the “untruths” of Johnson “is the myth that Britain can tear up the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the EU, withhold its financial commitments to the bloc and simultaneously start negotiating free-trade deals.”
All EU leaders who have commented on Johnson’s futile fandangos have made exactly this point, but he continues to try to convince the British electorate that there will be acceptance of a different sort of deal.
This is the man who will become leader of the Conservative Party and thus prime minister of the United Kingdom on July 22 “when the roughly 160,000 Conservative Party members — 70 percent men, 97 percent white, average age 57” cast their votes. This process is wildly undemocratic, but then the whole dismal Brexit farce has shown that democracy is extremely shaky. The government would be better advised to concentrate on getting the country back on its tracks rather than indulging in the fantasy that, as Johnson wildly claims, exiting the European Union will mean that Britain can “have our cake and eat it”. Disaster is not far off.