Voting for the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has closed, and the ballots of the only people enfranchised in the process—a hundred and sixty thousand or so Conservative Party members—are being tallied. (The voters are technically selecting a party leader, but, according to the U.K.’s parliamentary system, that person will become Prime Minister, at least for a while.) The almost certain winner is Boris Johnson, whose main talent, if one can call it that, is to make lies sound amusing. He is due to become the Tory leader on Tuesday and the Prime Minister on Wednesday, which will involve a visit to the Queen. Some of his colleagues in government are already resigning.
It’s a better option, for some ministers, than waiting to be fired—or, worse, doing what they would need to do in order to keep their jobs. On Sunday, Andrew Marr, of the BBC, asked Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Do you think you’re going to be sacked?” Hammond replied, “I’m sure I’m not going to be sacked, because I’m going to resign before we get to that point.” He noted that a condition of service in a Johnson cabinet would be embracing the possibility of no-deal Brexit—that is, a chaotic, abrupt exit from the European Union without many basic rules in place for the movement of goods and people. Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the E.U., but Parliament rejected it three times, costing May her party leadership and resolving nothing. If nothing more is done, a no-deal Brexit will happen automatically on October 31st—and Johnson has done nothing but bluster and play make-believe. A crash-out of this kind would likely be debilitating for the British economy. Hammond said that he could never accept that outcome. Instead, he told Marr, “I intend to resign to Theresa May before she goes to the palace to tender her own resignation.” Better to deliver a letter of resignation to a woman with minutes left on the job, on her way to see a woman whose job belongs to another century, than to have to make obeisance to Boris. The rituals of powerlessness in the U.K. are many and intricate.
David Gauke, the Justice Minister, also said that his resignation is ready if Johnson becomes Prime Minister, because a no-deal Brexit would be a “national humiliation” that he wants no part in. (Gauke is at the center of a group of Conservative M.P.s opposed to no deal; they are known as “the Gaukeward Squad.”) On Monday, Sir Alan Duncan, a top official at the Foreign Ministry, did submit his resignation to May. In it, he spoke of the tragedy of the United Kingdom having to operate “under the dark cloud of Brexit.” He also told May, “You deserved better.” Duncan had been Johnson’s subordinate when Johnson served as Foreign Secretary and, as he told BBC4 last month, in remarks that were widely quoted, “cleaning up after him was quite a full-time activity.” The problem is not simply one of style but of reliability. Johnson last week abandoned another former Foreign Office colleague, Sir Kim Darroch, who was the U.K.’s Ambassador to the United States until President Trump turned on him and he resigned.
On resigning, Duncan tried to execute a series of parliamentary maneuvers that would have subjected Johnson to a confidence vote before he even had a chance to see the Queen. Such a vote would be exceptionally close; the Conservatives only narrowly control Parliament, with the help of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and there are Tories who might want to take a stand not only on no deal but on no Boris. That effort was thwarted; for the Tories, it may all be too late.
Not everyone is leaving, of course. There is a scramble under way for the top jobs in the cabinet, even though few contenders seem to have many illusions about Johnson. Last week, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, was asked in an interview with a panel of BBC correspondents about one of Johnson’s factually deficient performances at a campaign event. Johnson had held up what he proclaimed to be a smoked kipper from the Isle of Man, which, because of onerous E.U. regulations, had to be shipped with its own “plastic ice pillow.” He looked astonished, as if to suggest that the E.U. was only inches away from requiring an ice duvet and dressing gown, too. It didn’t take long to determine that the regulation in question was a domestic British rule, not one set by the E.U. Barclay told the BBC that the moment actually illustrated Johnson’s strengths: “The point was that he was signalling to the room about the fact that we can do stuff differently.” He added, “What you saw there was a bit of the joie de vivre, a bit of the optimism, the communication skills that Boris has.”
One of the correspondents followed up by asking whether it mattered if someone who wants to be Prime Minister “is telling a total porky-pie.” Barclay replied that, once Johnson is installed in 10 Downing Street, he will be surrounded by civil servants who can brief him on the “fishing situation.” Barclay made it clear that he would be glad to keep his job. He has endorsed Johnson. May will be gone soon; Brexit, and its cloud, will remain.
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