Boris Johnson is set to become Britain’s new prime minister, delighting fans of the controversial former mayor of London but dismaying critics who fear that he is intent on pulling the country out of the European Union without a deal in place.
Dismissed by detractors as a buffoon, Johnson will take the reins as premier Wednesday, replacing Theresa May and fulfilling a nearly lifelong ambition to move into 10 Downing St. He beat out Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to become leader of the Conservative Party – and, by extension, prime minister, because the Conservatives hold sway in Parliament – in an internal party election. In effect, about 159,000 Conservative Party members, most of them white and middle-aged or older, decided who would lead the United Kingdom’s 66 million people.
The result of that party poll was announced Tuesday. Johnson received 92,153 votes, and Hunt garnered 46,656.
His biggest immediate task will be to figure out how to withdraw Britain from the E.U. in an orderly fashion by the deadline of Oct. 31. The Brexit deal struck between May and the E.U. was voted down by Parliament three times, which forced her to step down.
Johnson campaigned for Brexit before the 2016 referendum and has pledged that the U.K. would leave the E.U. by Oct. 31, “do or die.” Although he contends that he can wrest a better deal from the E.U., time is extremely short, and European officials have taken a dim view of reopening negotiations. If no new agreement is struck, Johnson says he is prepared to let the U.K. stumble out of the union without a deal, which many analysts and officials warn would result in economic catastrophe. Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the economy would shrink by 2% within a year.
Speaking after the result of the leadership election was announced, Johnson acknowledged the challenge of maintaining a deep partnership with the rest of Europe while declaring Britain’s independence from it. But he declared that he and his fellow Conservatives were up to it.
“Do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?” he asked the audience of Conservative Party members. “I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me.”
Like Donald Trump – who has praised Johnson as a good politician – Johnson is an extremely divisive figure. To his supporters, he brings a populist touch to politics and a disarming charm with his messy mop of blond hair, his fondness for bon mots and his British boosterism. To his detractors, Johnson is an unprincipled opportunist with no goal except achieving power, whose performance as London mayor and as British foreign secretary was marred by embarrassing gaffes, an indifference to the details of governing and a tendency to make extravagant but empty promises.
“He connects with the public in a way that other politicians have not done for a long number of years,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, told the BBC. “But…it doesn’t work when you’re dealing in negotiations with the chancellor of Germany or the president of France or whosoever it might be.”
Some of Johnson’s sharpest critics come from his own party. Some senior Conservatives have warned that they would be willing to bring down their own party in government if that is what it would take to stop Johnson from taking Britain out of the E.U. without a deal. Shortly before the result of the party leadership election was announced Tuesday morning, an education minister resigned, saying she could not serve in a Johnson administration.
Johnson’s personal life has also come under scrutiny. In 2004, he lied to fellow members of Parliament and the public about an extramarital affair. In recent weeks, Johnson has refused to say how many children he has fathered.
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