LONDON — Boris Johnson, to whom lying comes as easily as breathing, is on the verge of becoming prime minister. He faces the most complex and intractable political crisis to affect Britain since 1945.
That should be concerning enough. But given Britain’s political system — which relies for its maintenance on the character and disposition of the prime minister — it carries even graver import. Mr. Johnson, whose laziness is proverbial and opportunism legendary, is a man well practiced in deceit, a pander willing to tickle the prejudices of his audience for easy gain. His personal life is incontinent, his public record inconsequential.
And his premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself.
[Boris Johnson was chosen as Theresa May’s successor on Tuesday.]
The state of the United Kingdom, a constitutional compact founded in 1922 and stretching back, in one form or another, for centuries, is severely strained. Though Brexit is primarily driven by English passions, two of the four territories in the Union — Northern Ireland and Scotland — voted to remain. Both present immediate problems for Mr. Johnson — and for the future of Britain.
In Scotland, rancor at the sense that the country’s vote counted for little and subsequent repeated bouts of parliamentary chaos have led to renewed calls for a second independence ballot. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, insists Scotland will hold one if Brexit takes place. One of the most adroit politicians in Britain, Ms. Sturgeon knows that despite widespread misgivings about Brexit, the majority needed for independence does not currently exist. But recent polling suggests a Johnson government might tilt the scales in her favor. An independent Scotland may be conjured out of the chicanery of Mr. Johnson’s rule.
In Northern Ireland, Mr. Johnson is beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-line Northern Irish Protestant party on which he will depend for a majority in Parliament. That severely curtails his room for maneuver as he attempts, one way or the other, to take Britain out of the European Union. The D.U.P. will not countenance separation from the rest of the United Kingdom — hence why the so-called backstop, effectively an insurance plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, fatally scuttled Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal. It is hard to see how Mr. Johnson can extricate himself from this problem, whose protraction may have a decisive effect on the country’s internal politics. Calls for a United Ireland, encouraged by demographic change and the waning of unionist sentiment, appear to be gathering more support.
The traditional solution to such an impasse is to call fresh elections. But here too there are problems for Mr. Johnson. Current polls show a fluctuating four-way split with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which peeled off much of the Conservative vote in the recent European elections, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. Tory activists believe only Mr. Johnson can woo back the faithful from Mr. Farage, but if he steers the party farther right it would be likely to lose more liberal-leaning seats. Though the temptation of a resounding victory may pull on Mr. Johnson’s vanity, the risk of a disastrous rout from a split base, handing Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn and shattering the Tories, will surely be too great. And any successor to Mrs. May will fear the unpredictability of a snap election.
No way out there then. And the overall political situation has only worsened since Mrs. May’s resignation. The European Union — newly configured after parliamentary elections, with an incoming head of the commission who has emphatically ruled out reopening negotiations with Britain — is likely to be short on patience and good will. (It doesn’t help, of course, that its officials regard Mr. Johnson as a dangerous buffoon.)
At home, the rise of the Brexit Party constrains his options further. In part to nullify its threat, he has promised that unless a deal is reached by the end of October, the deadline for Britain’s departure from the bloc, he will leave without one. And as Parliament, which remains intractably divided, is very unlikely to ratify anything Mr. Johnson presents, a No Deal exit looks far from impossible. The consequences of such a development cannot be foreseen — but they will surely not redound to the benefit of Britain.
So, the political situation is inclement, the room for maneuver limited, the stakes high. For another politician, assuming power in such circumstances would be daunting — but not necessarily dangerous. In a system that grants significant autonomy to prime ministers and relies on their propriety, character matters. The same scenario can play out differently in different hands. That’s why, in the end, analysis comes back to Mr. Johnson and his terrible personality.
He prizes victory above government — his first ambition as a child was to be “world king” — and his political career has been marked by ferocity of campaigning and indifference in office, as both London mayor and foreign secretary. His contempt of scrutiny is plain to see: He was irked and petulant when challenged over budget cuts, the waste of public money on vanity projects or diplomatic gaffes. His easy talk of parliamentary prorogation — effectively suspending the legislature — may be a taste of the chaos to come.
He seems not to have principles. In the late ’90s he told a surprised colleague he was “worried I haven’t got any political opinions” — before going on to rehearse a hit parade of right-wing classics about “picanninies” and “bum boys” in his Telegraph column. While the insight into the void at the heart of Mr. Johnson’s blond ambition is striking, there are some constants to his politics other than his spectacular mendacity: his defense of bankers and pursuit of tax cuts, and a loathing for those who call him to account over facts.
Reality will prove unavoidable on Oct. 31, however Mr. Johnson bluffs. Predictions about Brexit generally assume too much stability in the status quo; Mr. Johnson’s slipperiness makes it harder still to predict. Tackling Britain’s deep divisions requires depth of character, conviction and principle, none of which its incoming prime minister has ever hinted at possessing.
In Mr. Johnson’s queasy novel, thankfully his only one to date, a thinly disguised Boris-like politician muses that “the whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke.”
Britain may be about to discover how it feels to be the punch line.
James Butler (@piercepenniless) is a co-founder of Novara Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The London Review of Books and Vice.
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