There are plenty of things Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson can do that Theresa May probably can't. Quote the Aeneid from memory in Latin. Tell an interviewer that if he were banished to a desert island he would spend the rest of his life translating Homer. Insist to another that his £250,000 a year salary for a weekly column was “chicken feed.” Express genuine awe at the sight of the gun from the opening scene in Kim. Have that hair. Oh, and win the support of enough of his fellow Tory MPs to be named party leader.
But sail the Brexit skiff out of the rocks on which it foundered the day after the EU referendum vote three years ago? Please.
The timeline is unclear, but May says that she will be stepping down soon (the announcement of the, as it were, announcement is expected in early June). Boris is the clear favorite to replace her. To do what exactly, though?
Boris' appeal to his colleagues and to the wider Conservative base is primarily social and rhetorical. Enough of this fussy vicar's daughter. What we need is a plain-speaking, no-nonsense Englishman who can push off all those nagging (read: feminine) details about backstops and red lines and customs blocs. Lot of nonsense anyway. May was a Remainer herself; probably she invented half of it as a deliberate ruse. Frailty, thy name is etc.
But some of them probably believe he can actually deliver Brexit too. “Turn him to any cause of policy, / The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose, / Familiar as his garter.” Leaving means not participating in the European Union's customs and regulatory framework. This means, among other things, that an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would no longer be possible. Closing the border would violate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. Keeping the border open there and creating a new invisible one in the Irish Sea is also unacceptable to Ulster. Three things Brexiteers are theoretically committed to — a two-decades-old peace treaty, maintaining the unity of the, uhh, United Kingdom, and actually getting out of Europe — are mutually exclusive.
While attempting to devise a solution to this tripartite conundrum, Boris will face all the other built-in problems May could not work around. The chief one is arithmetic. A deal that keeps Britain in the EU customs union in some form or other in order to maintain the open border in Ulster — the so-called “backstop” of legend — would have to get through Parliament first. Conservatives are still internally divided (except on the subject of May herself). So are Labour MPs, but they are at least united when it comes to rejecting any kind of agreement that would ensure a successful transition out of the European Union. This is what opposition parties do.
No amount of poetry recitation or P.G. Wodehouse cosplay can change the fact that Brexit was never meant to succeed. In the Westminster system a party campaigns on a manifesto. This includes certain items which the party then attempts to implement in the House of Commons if they win a majority and form a government. You cannot take a straw poll and then expect members of Parliament to carry out the will of voters who are not their constituents out of the goodness of their hearts. Recognizing this and cynically calling the referendum vote in order to doom the anti-Europe cause was David Cameron's last and greatest trick. He's probably still laughing about it from his £25,000 garage.
For a few months Conservative Brexiteers will enjoy their Indian summer with Boris. There will be a few good speeches and at least one Nazi joke. I'll bet he says some nasty and very quotable things about Emmanuel Macron, too. But the new, hell-or-high-water, no-wait-really-we-mean-it-this-time-guys deadline with the EU is October 31.
Trick or treat?