LONDON — Boris Johnson handily won the race to lead the Conservative Party on Tuesday, and will be prime minister within a day.
The bombastic, Latin-quoting, Oxford classicist with the mop of intentionally mussed yellow hair, who made his name as an over-the-top journalist in Brussels and then as London mayor and galvanized the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, will walk through the black enameled door of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday — fulfilling what his biographers describe as his relentless “blond ambition” to follow his hero, Winston Churchill, into the top spot.
In a leadership contest involving only dues-paying members of the Conservative Party, the former foreign secretary Johnson faced the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Johnson captured 92,153 votes to Hunt’s 46,656 — a dominant victory that shows Tories want a leader who promises, above all else, to deliver Brexit.
After be chosen by the 160,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party, the transfer of power now happens quickly.
On Wednesday, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May will deliver her last remarks at a question-and-answer session in the House of Commons and then she will travel to Buckingham Palace to resign. Johnson will follow her to the palace, where Queen Elizabeth II will ask him to form a new government. Johnson will be 14th prime minister during the queen’s long reign.
The 55-year-old Johnson will take up residence at Downing Street and within hours begin announcing his new cabinet. His 31-year-old girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications official and a top Tory spinner, may move in over the weekend, according to British press reports.
As a sign how the Conservative Party has torn itself apart over Brexit, the Tory backbencher Charles Walker asked the audience in the hall where Johnson’s victory was announced, “can we be kinder to the next prime minister than we have been to the current prime minister?”
When Johnson clocks in for his first day of work in the top job, he will face an overflowing in-tray of daunting problems that need urgent attention, including — but not limited to — a showdown in the Persian Gulf with a belligerent Iran, vexing Brexit, assembling a top leadership team, the survival of his Conservative Party, ministerial resignations, rebels in Parliament and a raft of domestic issues ranging from housing to health care.
And President Trump. The postwar “special relationship” has had a rocky month, as the American president lashed out on twitter against the British ambassador in Washington, calling him “a pompous fool.”
Sir Kim Darroch provoked the president’s ire when a cache of secret diplomatic cables were leaked to a British tabloid. The memos from Darroch described Trump as “insecure” and his administration as “inept” and “dysfunctional.” Darroch resigned in the aftermath — after Johnson failed to back up, as the tabloids put it, “our man in Washington.”
Also looming are new redlines and deadlines in the mess called Brexit. May’s failure to deliver Brexit on time was the reason her Tory lawmakers ousted her.
Johnson, who was the face of the winning Brexit campaign in the June 2016 referendum, has vowed, “do or die,” Britain will leave the European Union in October.
Writing in Monday’s Telegraph, Johnson said, “it is time this country recovered some its can-do spirit.” He said that if the Americans could land men on the moon 50 years ago using hand-sewn bits of computer code, then 21st century Britain could imagine a way to provide for frictionless trade across the Northern Irish border, which has been one of the stumbling blocks of the Brexit deal.
“What we need now is the will and the drive,” Johnson said.
Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister who opposes Brexit, was not impressed, telling the BBC that “the two things are obviously rather technically different.”
Yet the same math in the House of Commons that defeated May’s Brexit deal three times has not changed. The incoming prime minister will have a paper-thin working majority, protected by the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.
In the Persian Gulf, the Iranians seized the British-flagged vessel (with an international crew, no Britons aboard) after Britain took an Iranian tanker in the Gibraltar Strait that London said was heading toward Syria.
Johnson doesn’t have the best track record of diplomacy with Iran. When he was foreign secretary, Johnson mistakenly said that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman visiting family, was teaching journalism in Iran. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for alleged espionage and her family said that Johnson’s comments didn’t help her case.
The new leader will in short order also choose a top leadership team, likely rewarding those who supported him and disappointing those who don’t get tapped for top jobs.
Johnson has warned that he will require that those who serve be prepared, as he is, to leave the European Union with no deal — a prospect that frightens many economists and leaders of British businesses, fishing and agriculture, who rely on tariff-free trade with the continent for their profits.
After a chaotic spring that saw Britain blow past its March 29 deadline to leave the E.U., things seem to have calmed down. But not for long.
After the new leader is installed in 10 Downing Street, he will have just three months to come up with a plan that can win over both E.U. leaders and the British Parliament.
Nick Hargrave, a former special adviser at 10 Downing Street, argued that the first two days are “overwhelming” for all new governments. But in a series of tweets, he suggested that Johnson quickly make a few key decisions: Does he want a no-deal Brexit? Or cosmetic changes to May’s withdrawal agreement? And is the pathway to get there a general election or a second referendum or a showdown with Brexiteers in his own party?
Despite the do-or-die rhetoric, Johnson would prefer to leave with an amicable divorce deal, but not with May’s deal, which he called “dead.”
Unlike his rival Hunt, Johnson didn’t give himself wiggle room on the deadline.
“Most politicians say one thing but they are actually saying something else, it’s not definite as you might think,” said Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham.
But in Johnson’s case, he said, “he has given himself no caveats with the 31st of October. That’s it.”
British parliamentarians have been laying down a marker in hopes of preventing a no-deal Brexit, but it’s unclear how effective they could be.
The majority of lawmakers in Parliament are opposed to a no-deal Brexit, signaling a potential showdown to come. Some ministers are resigning their posts before Johnson can fire them over their opposition to his willingness to leave the bloc without a divorce deal.
On Monday, Alan Duncan quit his job as a Foreign Office minister. He said that Johnson “flies by the seat of his pants, and is all a bit sort of haphazard and ramshackle.”
He told the BBC that a Johnson-led administration could go “smack into a crisis of government.” Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and David Gauke, the justice secretary, also pledged to quit their posts if Johnson becomes prime minister.
“Things are really about to kick off again in a massive way because the irresistible force of Boris Johnson’s ego is about to meet the immovable force of the House of Commons,” said Rob Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester.
Over the weekend, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said that the Irish government looks forward to engaging with the new British leader but warned against ripping up the existing agreement.
“If the approach of new prime minister is they are going to tear up the withdrawal agreement, then I think we’re in trouble,” Coveney told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “That’s a little bit like saying, ‘Give me what I want or I’m going to burn the house down for everybody.’”