The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: The Boris Awakens

Boris Johnson overlaid with the EU flag, one star blinking.
Conservative MP Boris Johnson leaves his home in London on June 17.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images.

This week in Tories: The contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party—and therefore prime minister—has come down to the final two. The overwhelming favorite is former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. He’ll be up against current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose Brexit position is a bit more vague.

Last time we checked in, the leadership contest was down to seven. Matt Hancock dropped out of the race on Friday. In subsequent rounds of voting by MPs held this week, the lowest vote-getters were eliminated: Dominic Raab, Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, and then Michael Gove were all dismissed in that order. Johnson and Hunt will now face off in a postal vote among the U.K.’s roughly 160,000 Conservative Party members—not to be confused with Conservative Party voters—with the winner due to be announced the week of July 22.

The contest was not without accusations of skullduggery. Johnson has held a commanding lead throughout the process, but the changes in vote totals from round to round suggested that some MPs who supported him were voting tactically, boosting the campaigns of candidates they viewed as weaker opponents. In the last round, for instance, Johnson won only three of Javid’s 34 votes—fewer than expected—suggesting that some Johnson backers were boosting Hunt, who as a former Remainer might be a weaker candidate in the final round than Gove. There’s also a narrative that Johnson was seeking revenge on Gove, who derailed his last leadership bid in 2016. While entertaining, it’s not clear that any of this matters much, given Johnson’s overwhelming lead in the polls. Naturally, everyone’s being very chill about it:

This week in what does it all mean? Since he entered the race, Johnson has been adamant that the U.K. will absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, not ask the EU for another Brexit extension. “If I get in, we’ll come out, deal or no deal, on October the 31st,” he has said.

Yeah, but what does he really think?

Johnson’s position has appeared to be softening a bit in the past few days, particularly after the hardest of the hard Brexiteers—Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom—were eliminated from the race. In a TV debate on Tuesday night, Johnson avoided Gove’s attempts to pin him down on the question of whether he would leave without a deal rather than try to delay, saying only that “Oct. 31 is eminently feasible.”

I suppose how you interpret that depends on your definition of eminently. Johnson wants to reopen debate with Brussels on the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated; in particular, he wants to take out the controversial “Irish backstop,” which critics fear could leave the U.K. in a permanent customs union with Europe. European leaders say they’re not interested in negotiating about this. But even assuming they’re more flexible than they’re letting on, it will almost certainly require more time than they’ve allotted. Parliament won’t even be back from its summer recess until September. EU leaders are also making noises about the possibility that they won’t be willing to grant another Brexit delay, but it seems likely they will if the alternative is no-deal.

Another possibility is that Johnson could just negotiate some cosmetic changes to May’s withdrawal agreement and then ram it through Parliament via sheer momentum and charisma. But given that Johnson found the agreement so distasteful that he resigned from the Cabinet over it, this would also be a pretty big flip-flop.

If Johnson is secretly trying to avoid no-deal, he’s dug himself a pretty deep political hole to get out of.

This week in Brussels: EU leaders are meeting in Brussels Thursday, and for once it’s not about Brexit. In the wake of the recent European elections, they’re gathered for talks on filling the union’s top positions, including president of the European Commission, president of the European Council, and president of the European Parliament. (These are all different things.) Because this is the EU, the process for filling these positions is vague, complicated, drawn-out, and involves a passive-aggressive dispute between France and Germany. In this case, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are at odds over who should replace Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the EU Commission (basically the EU’s civil service), the body’s most powerful job. Under the informal spitzenkandidat system that has governed the past few contests, the job has gone to the “lead candidate” of the bloc with the most seats in the European Parliament.

This time, that’s Manfred Weber of the center-right European People’s Party, who is also a member of Merkel’s party in Germany. Macron argues that spitzenkandidat is not a real thing. This could go on for a while.

Days until next deadline: 134