Theresa May Can Live Without Boris Johnson
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the second time in her brief premiership, Theresa May faces a battle for survival. If she prevails, it will be as the leader of a new political construct in Britain: the single-party coalition government.
Ever since the disastrous 2017 election, in which her Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority and the prime minister faced calls to resign, the government has resembled a giant scrum. Heavyweights on both sides of the Brexit divide — those who want a hard, clean break with Europe and those who want the closest ties consistent with leaving — have vied for dominance.
The divisions over Europe run deep and go back to at least Margaret Thatcher’s days — but open dissent became institutionalized in January 2016, when U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron released his government from the binding principle of collective responsibility on the issue of Brexit. Ministers were free to campaign and vote according to their conscience. Many, including Boris Johnson, did so to devastating effect.
Now Johnson is at it again, theatrically stomping out of May’s government to preserve his credentials as the most prominent advocate for the idea that the U.K. is better off untethered from the rest of Europe. His departure, together with that of Brexit secretary David Davis, raises the risk she will now face a challenge to her leadership.
Seventy-two hours ago, May looked to be taking back control. On Friday, she gathered her cabinet at her country residence and stripped them of their phones, cutting off communications with journalists waiting outside. With the clock ticking — a withdrawal agreement and the broad terms of a future relationship are supposed to be agreed by October — she told ministers they can either get behind her proposals or get a taxi home. Twelve hours later, ministers emerged, united, it seemed, around a new Brexit plan, which the government called “a substantial evolution” in its proposals for the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. Forty-eight hours later, and that evolution started to look more like revolution.
May can live without Boris Johnson, a much diminished figure after his repeated gaffes as foreign secretary, and Davis, who spent only four hours this year in meetings with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier. What she loses in heavyweights, her leadership gains in coherence.
No matter how convoluted the Conservative Party’s internal machinations get, the crisis is unlikely to trigger an election. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, one isn’t due until 2022. And while May was last year able to muster the necessary two-thirds of votes in Parliament to back her call for an election three years earlier than scheduled, the current government – whoever leads it – is unlikely to risk losing more seats.
If the knives come out for May now, they are blunt ones. The Brexiters who would like to topple her need the numbers to win a confidence vote against her, a leader around whom they can coalesce, and then a plan for Brexit that would survive parliamentary scrutiny or have any chance of engaging Brussels in negotiation. Up to now, the’ve had none of the above. (Though in this fast-moving story, all eyes will be on what Environment Secretary and fellow Brexit ringleader Michael Gove does next.)
The Brexiters’ argument is that the economic costs associated with leaving are a price worth paying for regaining sovereignty, and will be offset by the future benefits from trade agreements. It amounts to a plea of “Trust us, we’ve got this.” That won’t fly with many Conservatives, let alone the broader electorate. The idea that Britain can now leave without a deal — given its lack of border infrastructure or other preparations — is ludicrous. A leadership challenge that puts Brexiters in charge would be an even bigger gamble than leaving the EU.
Britain is now ruled by a coalition government. The fact that both sides of the Brexit divide are in the Conservative Party is a meaningless distinction; for all intents and purposes, this is an uneasy cohabitation.
May’s Friday gambit was to make sure that her side is the senior partner. Those who want a harder break from Europe have been consigned to junior partner status; if they want to stay in government, they need to back the majority position and allow negotiations with Brussels to proceed.
Coalition governments can be fragile, and May’s will remain so. The public also tend to be suspicious of them. But they can also bring advantages: Coalitions are more broadly representative as the partners have to compromise to bring legislation. They can improve democratic participation and accountability, as each partner provides a check on the exuberance of the other. The presence of a hard-line junior partner may encourage the EU to work toward an agreement too; it is not in Europe’s interests for Britain to crash out without a deal.
It’s unclear whether May will survive the current backlash. But she is right to insist her government get behind her proposals. A coalition of Conservatives, dominated by pragmatists, may be the best chance yet of turning the Brexit crisis into something approaching a catharsis.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.