Tony Blair used to joke with his left-wing critics that the truth about him was even worse than they feared: His centrist policies weren’t just political positioning, he’d say; he actually believed in them. The same might be true of Boris Johnson and Brexit—with consequences far more profound than generally understood.
In the immediate aftermath of last week’s seismic general election, many commentators and analysts speculated that regardless of Johnson’s hard-line Brexit rhetoric, the outcome of his emphatic victory might actually be a “softer” departure from the European Union. Such was the scale of his victory, the argument went, that Johnson was now liberated from his party’s most euroskeptic wing. This meant that he was freer to negotiate a close future relationship with the EU, in which Britain would remain largely aligned with the regulatory standards set in Brussels in return for good market access. In other words, the economic turbulence of Brexit would be limited. Ultimately, these commentators argued, Johnson is a man of no real principle who will quickly turn on his more ideological colleagues once it becomes clear that he will be politically damaged by the economic impact of a “hard” break with Brussels.
Don’t hold your breath. While Johnson may yet prove his critics right and accept close economic alignment with the EU, doing so would undermine everything he has argued for and prioritized as a politician (and indeed, written about as a journalist). If his words and actions are taken at face value (admittedly a big if), last week’s general-election victory is unlikely to be the end of Britain’s Brexit drama. It will be only the beginning.