Is Boris Johnson Actually Winning?

At least politically, if not diplomatically, the British prime minister appears to be making some progress.

Boris Johnson speaks in front of a lectern with a banner for his Conservative Party behind him.
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

Boris Johnson has not won a single vote in the House of Commons. He has lost his government’s majority and been accused of lying to the queen to shut down Parliament. He has made an enemy of Europe’s most powerful leader, become entangled in a scandal in which he is accused of directing public funds to a woman he was in a relationship with, and even lost the support of his own brother. His attempted renegotiation of Brexit with the European Union now stands on the brink, with EU officials warning that he may have left it too late to strike a compromise deal in time for this week’s summit in Brussels.

And yet, despite everything, an intriguing question is bubbling up in London, even among some of those predisposed to hate anything Johnson does or stands for: Is he winning?

Johnson became prime minister in July with Britain mired in deadlocked talks over its exit from the EU. He had promised to do something the EU would not do for Theresa May: reopen the painstakingly negotiated withdrawal agreement setting the terms of the divorce between Britain and the EU in order to make it more palatable for his Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies. In fact, Johnson didn’t just want to change the withdrawal agreement; he also wanted to scrap the most contentious part of it, the “backstop,” a controversial legal mechanism that would have seen the whole of the United Kingdom remain beholden to EU customs rules until a permanent new relationship was agreed on after Brexit.

Despite the apparently incompatible positions, the U.K. and the EU are now locked in intense technical discussions to see whether a deal can be found after movement from both sides.

So is Johnson winning? Well, if winning is getting everything he wants, or even the bulk of it, then no. Johnson has already conceded a lot of ground to keep the negotiations alive at all—that much is already clear. And whatever happens, if there is to be a deal between the EU and the U.K. before the October 31 deadline by which Britain must leave the bloc, Brussels will have largely stuck to the red lines it drew before the negotiations even began. Indeed, even if an agreement is struck on Britain’s exit at an upcoming meeting of EU leaders this week, a backstop of some sort will be included (whether in name or in substance).

Or if winning is forcing the U.K. Parliament to blink in a way his predecessor never managed to, then again, no, he is not winning. Lawmakers have so far refused to let Johnson have his own way at all. They have actually done the opposite, passing a law forcing him to request an extension to Britain’s membership of the EU should no deal emerge at the summit in Brussels.

Might he be winning politically, though? This is a different question entirely.

Politically, winning is not about the score sheet of diplomatic concessions. Nor is it concerned with whether Brexit is sensible, stupid, visionary, or disastrous.

Politically, winning is short-term and transactional: It involves setting the question you want voters to answer—and getting them to respond in the way you want, all in the service of winning elections. If successful, you gain the power necessary to achieve the things you want to do and to stop the things you do not. This is the game as played by political strategists across the world, including those most central to Johnson’s electoral successes to date: Lynton Crosby and Dominic Cummings. With Brexit, it is no different. It’s just that the stakes on the table are much higher.

Crosby, the Australian strategist who helped mastermind David Cameron’s election success in 2015, as well as Johnson’s two poll victories in the London mayoralty, is rigid in his advice, urging candidates to frame the choice facing voters in the way most advantageous to them—and to stick to that position.

In 2017, he counseled May to frame the election as a Brexit choice, between strength and weakness, leadership and chaos. May muddied the waters, asking voters to give her a mandate to deliver a Brexit while refusing to provide any details about what that meant (while also offering a sweep of radical domestic reforms). Into the confused mix stepped the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who happily turned the election into a referendum on austerity.

May’s indecision, in this view, is also central to her Brexit failure. She never knew what she wanted, so the EU ran the talks. Did she prioritize sovereignty or immigration control, constitutional integrity or maximum regulatory flexibility after Brexit? In the confusion, she ended up with a fudge, which pleased no one.

Whatever else can legitimately be leveled at Johnson’s door, he cannot (yet) be accused of making the same mistake. He has defined what he wants from Brexit—maximum sovereignty and no more delays. The rest of his policy flows from there.

In his negotiations with the EU, there are some limited signs of success. In setting an agenda from the beginning that the U.K., as a whole, must leave the EU’s customs union to conduct its own independent trade policy, he has accepted that this will mean a legal economic border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. This has meant that solutions to the Irish-border conundrum have been centered on where and how a new legal border might be enforced, not whether one will exist—a dramatic difference from May.

Of course, there have been huge compromises. Johnson has conceded that Northern Ireland alone will align with EU standards, and appears to have conceded that actual border checks cannot take place along or near the border with the Republic of Ireland. While no agreement has yet emerged—and may not—Johnson’s stance has produced enough movement from Dublin and Brussels to create a pathway to a deal. The solution reportedly under consideration (a complicated tariff arrangement that would see Northern Ireland remain legally part of the U.K.’s customs zone, while for practical purposes being treated as if it were part of the EU’s) is a rehashing of a May proposal for the whole of the U.K. that was rejected by the EU. That Brussels has not rejected Johnson’s plan is an achievement in and of itself.

Johnson’s political strategy at home is also showing early signs of success. In contrast to May, he has sought to control the agenda, setting a simple narrative in the public’s mind about what he is trying to achieve and why voters should not blame him if he fails. Like Donald Trump with the border wall with Mexico, he calculates that it is not failure that is punished by voters, but a lack of trying.

To show it is not he who is to blame for any further Brexit delay, should it occur, Johnson and his aides have calculated that they must extract the biggest possible price from his critics at every turn if they try to block his Brexit strategy, forcing them to take ever more extreme measures to frustrate him. In combatting his shutting down of Parliament, his opponents were forced to take him to the courts. To rule out the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, he forced his opponents to pass a law stopping it. To make clear his party’s policy, he forced 21 Conservative lawmakers who disagreed with him out of the group entirely. At each turn, the volume was turned to maximum, and the public appears to have taken notice. An average of the past four national opinion polls has put the Conservatives 10 percentage points ahead of Labour—enough for a comfortable majority at a future election.

With each setback, then, he advances. It is a form of political alchemy: turning defeats into mini victories in a wider war focused on eventual electoral success. The problem for Johnson is that sometimes defeat is just defeat; what happens if he cannot enact Brexit by October 31, as he pledged?

Within a week it will be clear whether he has successfully managed to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU in a way that stands a chance of being ratified by the U.K. Parliament. If he fails, a complicated series of events will likely be triggered, almost certainly ending in a general election this year or in early 2020. Yet this could come either before or after a second referendum—and might even involve Johnson first being forced from office and replaced by Corbyn or another candidate entirely.

In reality, no one—not even those at 10 Downing Street—is clear on what will happen should negotiations fall short this week or soon thereafter (there is now talk of a second emergency summit before October 31). If no agreement is reached, events could quickly begin to spiral out of Johnson’s control.

Is he winning? At the least, he hasn’t lost yet.