British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Friday that she will resign on June 7.
Her departure signals two major things in U.K. politics. First, the quest to leave the European Union is in doubt, now, more than ever. And second, her failure to deliver the deal might only pave the way for another, even further-right Brexiteer in the form of Boris Johnson.
Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary in July 2018, said he was stepping down because Brexit was “dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.” It’s unclear how he thought quitting would somehow change that trajectory, but he said he didn’t want to be around for a “semi-Brexit.”
Before the ink on that letter was dry, speculation turned to whether Johnson had his eye on May’s job. In fact, just four days later, President Donald Trump told a British tabloid that Johnson would make a great prime minister — while he was on a visit to the United Kingdom to meet with May herself.
The next day, standing next to May outside the Chequers in Aylesbury, he faced questions from the press about that statement. May remained silent as Trump responded that he believes Johnson “thinks I’m doing a great job as president. I’m doing a great job, I can tell you in case you haven’t noticed. Boris Johnson would be a great prime minister.”
He added, referring to May, “I also said that this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job. A great job. And I mean that.”
Johnson backs a full Brexit, as opposed to a partial one with remaining alignments to the EU. That would work in favor of Trump’s trade policies. The EU is a large body to deal with, but with the U.K. carved out, there’s more room to negotiate bilaterally — on trade, or, perhaps, in seeking backing on Trump’s preferred “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran.
Johnson, who is beloved by Conservatives, also has a history of making bizarre, often xenophobic statements. He once wrote that Africa’s best bet would be if “old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction.” In 2016, he claimed the Libyan city of Sirte could be the next Dubai once they “clear the dead bodies away.” He voted in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, against climate change legislation in the U.K., and against higher taxes on the wealthy and banks.
As May leaves a vacuum in U.K. politics, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is gaining steam. A poll found the Brexit Party is set to win more votes (35%) than any other in the European Parliament elections, including Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (15%), the Liberal Democrats (20%), the Green Party (10%) and the Conservatives (9%).
Farage, who also founded the virulently anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), resigned as party leader in 2016 to dedicate himself full-time to making Brexit happen. Both Farage and Johnson worked overtime to sell Brexit to British voters who believed that immigrants were stealing their jobs and that the European Union was robbing the U.K.
Should the Brexit Party win, Farage, who was the first foreign politician to meet Trump after he was elected, will be in the position to accelerate the push for Brexit, a move that has been in the works since the British public voted in favor of it nearly three years ago.
But May thrice failed to pass any version of it through the Parliament, with the EU in no mood to renegotiate. So it’s unclear how Farage and Johnson can come up with a palatable Brexit agreement by the new, extended deadline of October 31.
If they fail to come up with a package that addresses the key issue of the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom), and Ireland (which is in the European Union), a “hard Brexit” will ensue — and with it, total chaos.