A Valentine From Boris Johnson

The British foreign secretary urged Remainers to open their hearts to the promise of Brexit.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaks at the Policy Exchange in London on February 14, 2018. 
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaks at the Policy Exchange in London on February 14, 2018.  (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

Roses are red, violets are blue
Johnson tried to sell Brexit
But said nothing new.

One can feel for Boris Johnson, on today of all days. The British foreign secretary, a lead campaigner for the Brexit referendum, now finds himself the frustrated suitor of the nearly half of the British public that voted against it. And despite his Valentine’s Day call for unity—his political equivalent of give me a chance, honey, I won’t let you down—the Remainers he was wooing will likely walk away just as disinclined as ever to return his texts.

Look, I understand you’re afraid of getting hurt. But we can make this work. “Brexit,” Johnson said in a speech that was billed as the “liberal case” for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU, “can be the grounds for much more hope than fear.”

It’s going to be great, you’ll see. You worry too much. The speech took the form of an extended reassurance, as Johnson tried to parry what he identified as the most common fears of Remainers, one by one. Wasn’t it a geo-strategic error to leave a major international alliance? No, Johnson said, the U.K. sticks to its commitments to European defense—that position is “unconditional and immoveable.” What if the U.K. outside Europe becomes more insular and isolationist? Not only will it not be that, but it will also be more democratic, he said, channeling Lincoln: Brexit was “the expression of a legitimate and natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Didn’t your own government’s analysis show the U.K. would be worse off economically after Brexit? Focus on the opportunities we’ll have: more money for the National Health Service (But didn’t the U.K. statistics authority say that’s not true?); more controlled borders that will still remain a magnet for “ambition and drive;” and the chance to get away from EU regulations so the U.K. can “do our own thing.”

Yet Johnson didn’t bring any additional sweets for the Remainers. He didn’t say, for example, how his government would prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. It was a speech more fittingly targeted toward Leavers in need of some upbeat reassurance, or perhaps to members of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s feuding cabinet. It was to his fellow Brexiteers that Johnson urged against complacency and gloating. “It is not good enough to say to Remainers, ‘You lost, get over it,’” he said, adding that “we must accept that the vast majority are actuated by entirely noble sentiments, a real sense of solidarity with our European neighbors, and a desire for the U.K. to succeed.”

But maybe Johnson’s attempted date with the Remainers was doomed from the start. Leavers like Johnson are growing more incompatible with Remainers, a recent study suggests. The independent London-based research institute U.K. in a Changing Europe has shown that since Brexit, some two-thirds of British voters identify with new political identities as either Leavers or Remainers. Sara Hobolt, a professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, and one of the researchers behind the study, told me these emerging identities not only suggest that people are less likely to change their position on Brexit, but that they also shape how people see the Brexit process, and one another. “You develop an identity, which is more than just an opinion—it’s almost an emotional attachment to an opinion-based group,” she said. “That means you also view things through that lens.” This makes political courtship across the divide particularly difficult.

As divided as the British people may be, Johnson said the possibility of a second referendum—calls for which have gained traction since pro-Remain campaign Best for Britain began crowdsourcing funds last week “to stand up for free speech, democracy and the right to fight this disastrous Brexit”—would only make things worse. Why do you have to make everything so complicated? “And so I say to my remaining Remainer friends, actually quite numerous: More people voted Brexit than have ever voted for anything in the history of this country,” he said. “And I say in all the candor that if there were to be a second vote, I believe that we would simply have another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose. So let’s not go there.”

In any case, calls for unity from a prominent Brexiteer won’t sway those who voted to stay in the EU, no matter how compelling. “[Johnson] is very much the leading Leave campaigner and that means that a call for him to say we should unify will be seen by Remainers as a call to unify behind his version of Brexit,” Hobolt said. We can work it out—if you see it my way.