The Brexiteers Are Defeating Brexit

Some of the foremost proponents of the U.K. leaving the European Union have opted out of government rather than finish what they started.

Boris Johnson and David Davis (Hannah McKay / Reuters)

While it is common for politicians to idolize Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson has gone further than most, writing a lengthy biography of the former prime minister—whose position Johnson clearly hopes to someday occupy. Where Churchill urged fighting on beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills, never surrendering, however, Johnson has distinguished himself recently by his eagerness to flee the field of battle after brief, backroom struggles.

On Monday, Johnson, the British foreign secretary, resigned from the government rather than back Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise proposal for British departure from the European Union. It’s Johnson’s second dramatic departure in roughly two years, after his surprising decision not to seek the prime minister’s office immediately following the Brexit vote. Johnson is coming to resemble less Sir Winston and more Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin.

Johnson is the second minister in two days to leave May’s cabinet, following David Davis, the secretary in charge of Brexit. Over the weekend, May gathered her cabinet at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, to hammer out an offer from Britain to the EU. May’s pitch to cabinet members was that they must sign on or get out. Brexit hardliners, however, have objected to May’s plan, which has been described as “soft Brexit”—that is, keeping the U.K. fairly closely integrated to the union. Davis favored a harder Brexit, and resigned. Johnson did too, writing in his resignation letter than he did not believe the U.K. was likely to achieve the independence and autonomy that voters demanded in the Brexit vote. “We are truly headed for the status of colony—and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement,” he wrote.

The problem for May, and for the U.K., is simple: There does not yet appear to be any deal that both the British government and the EU will accept. Any deal acceptable to the government will be far too generous to Britain for Brussels, while any deal acceptable to Brussels will be too strenuous for Westminster. May acknowledged this on Monday, telling members of Parliament to brace for the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without any agreement, which would create serious problems for the movement of goods and people between the U.K. and its nearest trading partners.

This conundrum, of no deal meeting the needs of both sides, was not only eminently foreseeable—it was foreseen by many who opposed Brexit. Meanwhile, those who most forcefully campaigned for leaving the EU have opted out of actually grappling with the ramifications of their stand. Consider the three Brexiteers Davis, Johnson, and Nigel Farage.

In fall 2016, after the vote, Davis said, “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.” In May 2017, he said, “Most of the EU states are very sympathetic to our view.” Davis was in a position to shape the course of the negotiation, and his decision to step down is a testament to how wrong his predictions were. In his resignation letter, Davis wrote, “I am … unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions.”

Johnson also campaigned for Brexit, breaking with his longtime rival and friend, then–Prime Minister David Cameron. Taking the opposite side from Cameron seemed to be a political maneuver—wagering that if voters backed Brexit, Cameron would fall and Johnson could succeed him. Nonetheless, Johnson seemed somewhat taken aback when “Leave” actually triumphed, and it turned out he hadn’t consolidated his power. After some feverish maneuvering, and a well-placed shiv from his fellow conservative MP Michael Gove, Johnson bowed out of the leadership race. That he managed to land as foreign secretary was a small miracle for him.

If Johnson’s support for Brexit was opportunistic, Farage at least had a long record of pushing for it. The longtime leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Farage stepped down as leader of his party just days after the Brexit vote, sounding a peculiarly self-pitying note. “The victory for the leave side in the referendum means that my political ambition has been achieved,” he said. “During the referendum I said I wanted my country back … Now I want my life back.” He went on to gallivant around the globe, appearing at the Republican National Convention and even campaigning for the doomed United States Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama.

As the current cabinet crisis shows, Farage’s declaration of victory was premature. On Monday, Farage piped up, threatening to return to UKIP over May’s “great Brexit betrayal.”

The prime minister’s performance has certainly been bumpy. Even before Monday, May’s grasp on power was precarious, after an election she called with the hopes of consolidating power actually resulted in the loss of her outright parliamentary majority. On the other hand, at least she has tried. After the Brexit vote, Cameron resigned and Johnson bowed out, leaving no viable candidate for prime minister except May, who had opposed Brexit but vowed to go through with the process.

Now May’s government seems to be crumbling around her as she struggles to handle the situation created by men like Johnson, Davis, and Farage—one she tried to avoid in the first place. Johnson, who is painfully ambitious, strangely charming, and only 54 years old, is surely not gone from politics for good; indeed, he is positively Nixonian in his comeback skills (as well as his tendency toward ethnic slur). Farage is already threatening his return. One could forgive May if she was tempted to sardonically welcome both of them to relieve her of the mess they created and clean it up themselves.