The UK Showdown

The fifth and final round of voting among Conservative Party members of Parliament has slightly bolstered the candidacy of former London mayor Boris Johnson.  He is one of two candidates to stand for prime minister after the resignation of Theresa May.

Johnson enjoys the party endorsement, leading every vote to date.  He ended the fifth round of voting with 166 members of Parliament supporting his candidacy.  Jeremy Hunt, his opponent, had 77 votes.  Hunt is currently May’s foreign secretary and is seen as a moderate as compared to Johnson.  He believes he can renegotiate May’s Brexit deal with the EU to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson has promised to leave the EU with or without an agreement to depart on October 31.  He is charged with being bombastic and prone to gaffes.  His strong personality, in some ways as unpredictable as President Trump, means he would bring an unconventional flair to the campaign and perhaps Downing Street.

Conservative Party members will now choose their favorite candidate via mail in ballots.  The ultimate winner will be announced during the week of July 22.

Already, the attack on Johnson has begun.  In Foreign Affairs, Owen Matthews wrote on June 18 “…a Johnson premiership horrifies many members of the party he aspires to lead.”  Johnson’s truthfulness is challenged and his personal life is seen as a reason to oppose his candidacy, but Johnson’s biggest mistake, according to Matthews, is his heartfelt support for the British people’s decision to leave the EU.

Hunt, on the other hand, knows he has no chance of winning the Conservative Party nomination without being for Brexit.  His position of wanting to renegotiate leaving shows why conservatives should keep him from the premiership -- he has the same position of Theresa May and that is why she resigned.

Moreover, his moderate sensibilities do Hunt disservice. The EU offers no incentive to negotiate anything with the U.K.  First, if Britain leaves, it will be the first of several countries leaving the EU, ending the original promise of Brussels that started as a series of economic agreements to prevent another world war.  The EU leadership has a significant incentive to do everything it can to make an exit miserable.

Second, if Hunt is the candidate for prime minister, many traditional Conservative Party voters will leave the party and cast their ballot for Brexit Party candidate Nigel Farrage.  Unhappiness with Brexit was one of the reasons thousands of voters deserted the Conservative Party and voted for the single-issue Brexit Party during recent European elections.  The Brexit Party came in first with nearly 30.5 percent of the vote.  The Conservative Party came in fifth, registering only 8.8 percent of the voting electorate.  

Johnson’s strong position makes him the best candidate to keep the Conservative Party in power and thwart attempts by pro-Brexit lesser parties to take advantage of the issue.

But Johnson will need to broaden his message to win the general election.  Anti-Brexit forces are mobilized to block any Brexit advancement.  They argue that the majority of the British public would vote Brexit down if given another chance.  Johnson can add his exuberant personality to the campaign trail and highlight the obvious danger to the British economy if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were to win.  Corbyn has taken the Labour party to more ideological extremes and has not discouraged a rash of anti-Semitism.

One positive message that could put Johnson over the top would be his embracing financial transparency -- letting the British public know where their tax dollars are being spent.  In polling, this has near 90% favorability in the United States.  It brings much-needed accountability to government, and it restores people’s trust in the system.   

Moreover, Johnson can bolster this position because the EU is not financially transparent at all.  I still remember a conversation I had with a Dutch member of the European Parliament recently who reminded me “we have little to no understanding of how much is spent or what is accomplished with the dollars of European citizens.”  When I was in Brussels several years ago, I noticed a public relations campaign that the “EU was making a positive difference.”  It struck me as odd that the campaign occurred only in Brussels, the EU’s headquarters, and designed to make the well-compensated EU workers feel better.

Johnson should go on the offense against the EU leadership and hold them accountable.

Only Boris Johnson will take Brexit head on.  If the Conservative Party chooses Hunt, the party will fail, and a very left-wing government will likely be sitting in 10 Downing Street.

Dr. David K. Rehr is Professor and Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University

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