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Boris Johnson’s Fall Gives Brexit a Chance to Succeed

Rather than kowtow to the anti-EU right, the next Conservative leader should return to Theresa May’s pragmatic vision of Brexit—or risk electoral obliteration in 2024.

By , a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the founder and CEO of Article7.
Boris Johnson drives a digger through a fake wall during a general election campaign event at JCB construction company on Dec. 10, 2019 in Uttoxeter, United Kingdom.
Boris Johnson drives a digger through a fake wall during a general election campaign event at JCB construction company on Dec. 10, 2019 in Uttoxeter, United Kingdom.
Boris Johnson drives a digger through a fake wall during a general election campaign event at JCB construction company on Dec. 10, 2019 in Uttoxeter, United Kingdom. Ben Stansall - WPA Pool/Getty Images

There’s an old political joke where a soul is asked to choose between heaven and hell and is given a trial run in each. Down in hell, he’s shown around what amounts to the best country club in the world, plays a few holes of golf with Beelzebub, is served fine venison, and washes it down with long-vanished Bordeaux vintages in a tête-à-tête with the devil himself. Preferring this to sitting on clouds listening to lyre music surrounded by winged toddlers, he chooses hell, only to be thrust into a fire pit, watching his best friend be flayed alive by a pair of oversized demons. What happened to the country club, he asks? Satan wastes no time in putting the poor soul right: “Then, we were campaigning. Now, we’re governing.”

As prime minister, Boris Johnson gave Britain a government that ended up on the lower end of purgatory—closer to the decaying end of a dictatorship, with sex predators being appointed to positions of authority, admissions of mysterious visits to supposedly former KGB agents’ villas, $1,000 rolls of wallpaper, and attempts to extort a $180,000 treehouse for his latest son, all against the background of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the most serious war in Europe since 1945.

The war and pandemic were of course outside his control. Brexit, however, is his responsibility. His decision to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (he notoriously wrote a pro-Remain and a pro-Leave article before deciding to publish the second) is credited with giving it the 52 percent needed for victory. His takeover of the Conservative Party, ruthless purge of moderate Tories (including even Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, as well as Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames), and decisive victory in the 2019 general election enabled him to get an agreement acceptable to the EU through Britain’s Parliament.

There’s an old political joke where a soul is asked to choose between heaven and hell and is given a trial run in each. Down in hell, he’s shown around what amounts to the best country club in the world, plays a few holes of golf with Beelzebub, is served fine venison, and washes it down with long-vanished Bordeaux vintages in a tête-à-tête with the devil himself. Preferring this to sitting on clouds listening to lyre music surrounded by winged toddlers, he chooses hell, only to be thrust into a fire pit, watching his best friend be flayed alive by a pair of oversized demons. What happened to the country club, he asks? Satan wastes no time in putting the poor soul right: “Then, we were campaigning. Now, we’re governing.”

As prime minister, Boris Johnson gave Britain a government that ended up on the lower end of purgatory—closer to the decaying end of a dictatorship, with sex predators being appointed to positions of authority, admissions of mysterious visits to supposedly former KGB agents’ villas, $1,000 rolls of wallpaper, and attempts to extort a $180,000 treehouse for his latest son, all against the background of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the most serious war in Europe since 1945.

The war and pandemic were of course outside his control. Brexit, however, is his responsibility. His decision to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (he notoriously wrote a pro-Remain and a pro-Leave article before deciding to publish the second) is credited with giving it the 52 percent needed for victory. His takeover of the Conservative Party, ruthless purge of moderate Tories (including even Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, as well as Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames), and decisive victory in the 2019 general election enabled him to get an agreement acceptable to the EU through Britain’s Parliament.

The route to Conservative success in the next election consists of more Brexit pragmatism, not less.

Unlike his predecessor Theresa May’s deal, which sought to avoid the need for a trade and customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and included arrangements for security cooperation, Johnson’s required checks on goods traded between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Johnson, however, sought later to renege on his own deal and the Northern Ireland Protocol that gives it legal force, going so far as to introduce a bill that would give British ministers the power to unilaterally violate the protocol.

Yet there is a fundamental difference between getting Brexit to happen and ensuring it sticks. Johnson’s idea of Brexit, famously summed up as “pro having [cake] and pro eating it,” has run up against its own impossibility and the incompetence with which it has been implemented. Six years after the vote, 53 percent of British voters think they were wrong to leave the EU, and only 35 percent say that the decision was right.

The Tories are behind in the polls, and though some of that is due to Johnson’s now tarnished brand, they are also suffering from being in power for 12 years and from an adverse economic climate. In addition, Keir Starmer, who leads the opposition Labour Party, has detoxified his party so that the worst people say about him is that he’s “boring,” while the third party, the Liberal Democrats, have become acceptable to left-leaning voters no longer put off by their time in government with the Tories between 2010 and 2015, while at the same time winning over the support of more pro-European former Tory voters.

This means that while Britain’s majoritarian system usually gives the party that can assemble around 40 percent of the vote a parliamentary majority, tactical voting—in which voters choose the candidate most likely to defeat the one they like least rather than the one they support the most—against Conservatives has returned.

The approximately 60 percent of the vote now shared by Labour, Greens, and Liberal Democrats is likely to be more concentrated on the candidates most likely to defeat Tory incumbents. Setting aside Scottish National Party support for the moment, current polling would produce a Labour government—supported by the Liberal Democrats—with a very slim majority. Such a government would probably change the electoral system to a form of proportional representation, making the Tories’ Brexit-reconciled coalition of voters unviable.

Now that pragmatic former soldier Tom Tugendhat has been eliminated from the Tory leadership contest, voters are likely to hear even less discussion about how to make the best of Brexit and even more determination to be tough on Brussels as the remaining candidates compete for the support of mostly anti-European party members. Yet, the route to Conservative success in the next election consists of more Brexit pragmatism, not less.

Current Tory support is vulnerable on two flanks. The “red wall” of Northern English seats formerly held by Labour and the “blue wall” of long-standing Tory seats in wealthy southern counties are both under threat—from Labour in the north and the resurrected Liberal Democrats in the south. Red wall voters who switched to the Tories support Brexit but are vulnerable to economic shocks. The blue wall voters whom the Liberal Democrats are trying to poach opposed Brexit but have an economic interest in Tory government: They are generally affluent and support low taxes, low regulation, and other economically right-wing policies.

The main effect of Brexit has been to damage manufacturing on the island of Great Britain, which is no longer able to participate in Europe-wide supply chains.

The main effect of Brexit has been to damage manufacturing on the island of Great Britain, which is no longer able to participate in Europe-wide supply chains. According to an economic analysis by the Centre for European Reform, the goods trade is down 14 percent, adding a further Brexit shock to inflation caused by energy price rises and the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic. U.K. inflation is expected to peak at 11 percent this year, compared to 7 percent inside the eurozone.

This crunch—higher prices and lower output—disproportionately hits areas in the so-called red wall of parliamentary seats in the Midlands and North of England where the Tories picked up seats from Labour in 2017 and 2019.

The blue wall in South East England depends more heavily on services, which escaped a Brexit hit (the Centre for European Reform analysis tentatively concludes that services trade has gone up since), and it is populated by Remainers who are nevertheless reconciled to Brexit, provided their prosperity is maintained.

Figures from Northern Ireland suggest a way forward. The Northern Ireland Protocol gives Northern Ireland’s businesses access to both the U.K. and EU goods markets, and it has led to the region having the strongest growth of all (apart from London), a change from years of decline relative to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The protocol’s direct extension to the whole of the U.K. (which would essentially be the same as May’s failed Brexit deal) would revitalize U.K. manufacturing in the red wall, eliminating many trade barriers with the EU, and allowing U.K. manufacturers to take part in European supply chains again, while reassuring blue wall voters that Brexit is being pursued with an eye to pragmatism. It would also alleviate the fears of unionists in Northern Ireland (the mostly Protestant political community in Northern Ireland that wants to stay part of the U.K.), who would then have exactly the same relationship with the EU as the rest of the U.K.

Formal endorsement of May’s approach to Brexit is of course far too pragmatic for the current Conservative Party. The short period devoted to the Tory leadership race—in which candidates compete for the votes of Tory members of Parliament, then of party members—does not offer the chance to develop such a radical argument.

But its spirit—engaging with the needs of the manufacturing-centered economy of the red wall, adopting a pragmatic stance to keep the blue wall on their side, and extending the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the rest of the U.K. in order to reassure unionists—offers the best route to Conservative victory in the next election. It would be their best option for preventing a Labour-Liberal Democrat government that would enact electoral reform, free Labour from its dependence on Euroskeptic red wall seats, and keep the Tories out of power for long enough to undo Brexit altogether.

Like Dante, the Conservative Party has been offered a glimpse of the underworld by Johnson’s mismanagement of Brexit. Returning to May’s deal offers the chance to escape permanent confinement there.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the founder and CEO of Article7.

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