The G7 and NATO summits, which ended last week, were Boris Johnson’s last hurray as UK leader. At the next Western alliance leaders’ meeting, they’ll be dealing with another British prime minister – the fourth since 2016. Or maybe the fifth if there’s an interim prime minister between Johnson and his successor.” permanent”. Or maybe the sixth, if there’s a general election by next summer.
British officials arriving at an international summit will face the kind of semi-serious questions that have traditionally troubled Italians. Remind me, who is your current prime minister? Is this one good or a prankster? How long do you think they last?
Countries can explain this kind of domestic instability if they seem strong and confident in other ways. Japan had seven prime ministers in the 1980s when its economy was booming. But Johnson’s Britain is a troubled country in dangerous times. The UK’s inflation rate is the highest of the G7 countries and its projected growth next year, according to the IMF, will be the weakest of the group.
For most foreign observers, the root of all these problems is obvious. The 2016 Brexit vote destabilized British politics, severely damaged the economy and severed the country’s trade and diplomatic relations with its European allies.
Johnson, of course, led the Brexit campaign. The fact that he is now widely recognized as a serial liar, deeply irresponsible and incapable of recognizing tough choices could cast a shadow of doubt on his signature “achievement”. Could it be that his prolific dishonesty and refusal to face the facts extended to the way he campaigned for Brexit?
But what is obvious abroad remains unspeakable at home. Keir Starmer, the Labor opposition leader, decided he would in no way suggest Brexit was a mistake and should be called off. As a tactical calculation, that may make sense, as reopening Brexit would give struggling Tories an issue to campaign on. But in political and economic terms, it means Britain will continue to grapple with Johnson’s main legacy for the foreseeable future. The ultra-cautious Starmer even ruled out joining the EU single market or customs union; or allow the free movement of labor with Europe. As Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, liked to say: “Brexit means Brexit”.
A new British Prime Minister will have the opportunity to improve his personal relations with the main European leaders, in particular the Frenchman Emmanuel Macron. But, while that’s certainly a possibility, it’s not a given. The Conservative party may well choose a Brexit hardliner as its next prime minister – one who prolongs the showdown with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. The fact that this protocol, accepted by Johnson, effectively creates an internal customs border in the UK (which he has always denied) is another part of the outgoing Prime Minister’s poisonous legacy to his successor.
The only foreign capital Johnson will truly miss is Kyiv. Among Western governments, the United Kingdom, led by its Prime Minister, has been one of the most supportive of Ukraine, both diplomatically and militarily. In recent weeks, Johnson has often seemed happier in Ukraine than in the UK. But Britain’s firm support for Ukraine reflects a strong cross-party consensus that is almost certain to persist, whoever becomes the next prime minister.
This does not mean, however, that the choice of the next British Prime Minister is unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine. On the contrary, whoever replaces Johnson at 10 Downing Street will enter directly into the most dangerous geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Britain’s next leader will need calm and sound judgment, an ability to build relationships with allies and an understanding of the risks involved. These are qualities that were once taken for granted in a British Prime Minister. But looking at the field of suitors already jostling to succeed Johnson, it’s hard to be optimistic that the next man or woman will be up to the challenge.