When launching his bid to take over as the UK’s Prime Minister back in June, Boris Johnson said he wanted to do two things: get Brexit done and unite the country.
Despite this, his actions ever since appear to have had the sole aim of appealing to Brexiteers.
Johnson’s language has hardened. He has gone from wanting to unite a bitterly divided nation, in which nearly half of voters didn’t want to leave the EU at all, to saying that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, even if it means leaving without an agreed deal.
He attacks opposition lawmakers, accusing them of “surrendering” to Brussels, and dismisses fears that he is inspiring his supporters to send opponents abuse – and even death threats – as “humbug.”
This rhetoric has had a major impact on some of the people whom Johnson will need the most if he is to win the now seemingly inevitable general election: the membership of his own Conservative party.
The effect Johnson has had on some of his supporters was on display this week at the Conservative’s annual conference in Manchester, England.
Members cheered at fringe events as panelists made pro-Johnson and anti-Europe remarks. Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister was applauded for calling the UK’s parliament “contemptible” and that it’s not “possible to be a remainer today if you also want to be a democrat.”
Liam Fox, a former British Cabinet minister, told a room of delighted Euroskeptics that once Britain leaves the EU, “Germany will become the biggest ATM in history.” One audience member yelled back “they deserve it.”
And when former minister Francis Maude reminded an audience that his signature could be found on the Maastricht treaty, which founded the European Union, they booed. Not Maude, but the treaty itself.
New members love hard Brexit line
Conservative membership has grown since Brexit. And moderate Conservatives think much of this is coming from those new entrants. “Lots of people joined to help make Boris Prime Minister. They joined the Conservative party because of Brexit, but they are not Conservatives. And that’s forcing other people out,” says Patrick Lohlein, national director of Conservatives for a People’s Vote. “Their chief interest is to get Brexit done above everything else.”
It’s certainly true that Johnson has attracted new party members who love his hard line on Brexit. But the Conservative Party has had a strong Euroskeptic strain for decades, and Johnson also had the support of these members during his bid for leadership.
He can take comfort in the fact that most of his own party supports both him as a leader and his plan for Brexit, which was unveiled on Wednesday afternoon.
The plan went down less well in Brussels. Consensus across the EU is that Johnson has submitted a plan that doesn’t work and that he’s not taking getting a Brexit deal seriously. If he does want a deal, he is going to have to make concessions to Europe.
That’s where things get messy.
The Conservative party’s hardest Euroskeptics are willing to support Johnson’s Brexit plan for now, but are at the absolute limit of what they will accept in terms of cooperating with Brussels. They claim that Johnson’s plan could secure a majority in Parliament. But if Johnson is seen to kneel before the EU, that could quickly melt.
Then there’s the issue of selling any deal to the Brexiteer membership. Johnson’s plan isn’t all that different from Theresa May’s hated Brexit deal. It removes the controversial Irish border backstop, sure, but doesn’t touch any of the other stuff that Brexiteers hated – most notably the £39 billion ($48 billion) divorce bill that the UK will have to hand over.
If Johnson does soften in the coming days, it’s going to be tricky for MPs who voted against May’s deal to say that whatever Johnson gets from Brussels is worth £39 billion while keeping a straight face.
“The Prime Minister will have significant problem with the membership if he, in their eyes, ‘capitulates’ to Europe. The membership are required to get the vote out in any subsequent election, and this I am sure will be at forefront of the PM’s mind,” explains Lauren McEvatt, a former government special advisor.
Brexiteer MP Andrea Jenkyns railed at “the liberal media,” the “establishment” and “those cowards in parliament” allegedly holding up Brexit. And she applauded her colleague Steve Baker as he accused a former finance minister from his own party of believing in “Trotskyite conspiracy theories.” Will the activists who so enthusiastically cheered those remarks, knock on doors for Johnson if he too joins the ranks of the apostates?
Moment of truth
To this end, Boris is a hostage to his supporters. He currently enjoys rock-star status, as do many of his inner circle. His most senior adviser, the controversial Dominic Cummings, was mobbed at every appearance he made in Manchester, sometimes to the sound of fans singing “Oh, Dominic Cummings.” They don’t seem to care that he isn’t a member of their party, just that he is driving the UK out of the EU, come hell or highwater.
However, the moment of truth is just around the corner. Johnson needs to reach a deal with Brussels in days. His current proposals are simultaneously nowhere near soft enough for the EU and at the very edge of what Brexiteers will tolerate. Bluntly, he has miles to travel with next to no fuel in the tank.
Boris Johnson is a man with very few options. He can capitulate to Brussels to get a deal and risk it tanking in Parliament. He can accept that there is no deal to be done right now, request a Brexit extension and call an election. Or he can try and press ahead with a no-deal Brexit.
None of the options are particularly attractive and they all come with the risk that Johnson, should he mess things up, is booted out of office as the shortest-serving prime minister in history. Which was not how it was supposed to end for the boy who dreamed of leading Britain.