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Which Boris Is Britain Going to Get?

The new prime minister is a shape-shifter. Is he going to play the ideologue, or the opportunist?

Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

After eighteen years in political office, and a lifetime with his eyes on the prize, Boris Johnson has become the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Defeating Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative Party’s leadership race Tuesday by a wide margin of 92,153 votes to 46,656, he made his way to Buckingham Palace Wednesday afternoon local time, where he was formally appointed by the Queen.

As Johnson takes the nation’s top job, he also takes on its most contentious and confounding crisis: Brexit. Moreover, he will attempt to manage the collateral damage Brexit has created: a chaotic Conservative Party split between moderates and hardliners, under siege by an upstart Brexit Party, and hoping to stave off an increasingly far-left Labour Party. What sort of Brexit Britain will get, as well as what sort of future Britain will have, now both depend on which Boris Johnson will take the reins.

It is widely claimed that there are, in fact, two Boris Johnsons. The first is the ideologue—a populist, barnstorming Brexiteer who ousted back-to-back establishment prime ministers on his way to power. This Johnson would probably play hardball with the European Union, and force the nation into a no-deal departure come October 31. The other Johnson is an opportunist, a shape-shifter who was able to work across party lines as the only Conservative ever to become the mayor of liberal London. This Johnson, it is hoped, would build a consensus and prevail over a bitterly divided Parliament to deliver a passable Brexit deal, leading the U.K. out of the European Union and commanding a majority while doing so.

But even if Johnson possesses both the conservative yin and the centrist yang his backers claim, the task before him remains far more difficult and delicate than it has been made out to be. His options are limited.

From the moment he takes office, Johnson will have only three months to resolve a crisis which has remained unresolved for three years—a crisis which has grown more and more unmanageable over time. Following the two extensions to the Brexit deadline which Britain requested and received in March and April, the EU vowed that it would neither grant another extension nor reopen the Withdrawal Agreement to renegotiation. Without any substantive changes to the terms of Britain’s exit, it is unclear why any member of Parliament would come around to supporting the same deal which was rejected twice under Theresa May.

To make matters worse, the Brexit Party, a new group which won the European Parliamentary elections, has made considerable gains into the Conservative base. In order to rebuild the Conservative Party, which captured only 9 percent of the vote in the EU elections, Johnson will have to reestablish its Brexiteer bona fides. At the same time, the Labour Party has moved in an equal and opposite direction, deciding earlier this month to give a full endorsement to remaining in the EU—a stance which it only weakly held in the 2016 referendum and which it dropped immediately thereafter. If at any point a cross-party compromise seemed possible, those days are over.

As Johnson sets out to secure the 320 votes needed to pass a Brexit deal, the cards are stacked against him. The cruel irony, of course, is that Johnson was the one who originally stacked this deck. Through his antagonizing of the EU, the Labour Party, and his own Conservative Party, the new prime minister has isolated and alienated the people whose votes he needs. Now the U.K. is moving rapidly towards a no-deal departure from the EU, an event which experts worry will cause violence at the Irish border, food shortages, a financial crisis, and more.

The uncertainty of how all this will be navigated is only compounded by the uncertainty of who will do the navigating. “The fundamental point about the two Johnsons is that he’s rather vacuous in policy terms,” says Benjamin Martill of the London School of Economics. “He’s flip-flopped depending on what position he’s in.”

If Johnson continues to play the ideologue, we have a fairly clear idea of how the next few months might play out. In the coming days, as is expected, a crush of junior and senior ministers will resign and be replaced by Johnson’s hardline allies. They will then attempt to take the fight to the EU, which will give no ground on the Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed to with Theresa May. This in turn will lead Johnson to entrench himself as a Brexiteer in favor of a no-deal exit. At long last, on October 31, his false promises of a better Britain will be exposed when the U.K. finally does crash out of the EU.

If Johnson embraces his opportunist side, like the single market-supporting mayor of London he once was, there is some reason to believe that Britain can avoid this crisis. Although the EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson may be able to secure more palatable language in the accompanying “Political Declaration” on the future relationship of the EU and the U.K. Then, on a hope and a prayer, with the very real threat of a no-deal exit fast approaching, he may be able to use his cachet among the hard-line Conservatives to reunite them with the more moderate Conservatives. A fantastic whipping operation, which Johnson already has, might finally push his deal past the finish line.

The costs for a no-deal Brexit are high and the possibility of this latter scenario is low. Only time will tell which Johnson will emerge, or whether the shape-shifter will decide to shift shapes once more. Given that his constituency as prime minister of the United Kingdom is different from his constituency as a Brexit campaigner, which was equally different from his constituency as the mayor of London, we may discover a new and unaligned Johnson. “What is Boris number three going to look like?” Martill asked.

Perhaps this will be Johnson the Atlanticist, courting President Trump in order to mitigate the fallout of leaving the EU by ratifying a free trade agreement and doubling down on a political partnership with the U.S. Perhaps this will be a still more shameless Johnson who is totally detached from his prior positions, “undaunted”—as he said in his acceptance speech yesterday—by the Brexit Party’s threats before him, and ready to do what must be done to salvage a deal. Or perhaps we will find a man who is even more of a firebrand than we have seen before, who will drive the U.K. out of the EU and, in rapid succession, drive Scotland out of the U.K.