Viewed from Europe, the race for the Tory leadership has taken on a surreal quality as Boris Johnson takes an apparently unassailable lead in the multi-round contest. As a plethora of hostile editorials and articles in the European press attest, the sight of a politician widely derided as a “mini Trump” becoming the new British prime minister has only confirmed the impression that the UK has been consumed by a populist revolution symbolised by the vote for Brexit.
At one level this “noise” is more than superficial, since it points to a fundamental problem with the Johnson candidacy for Europe, which is the baggage he brings as a high-profile character who made a career out of lampooning the ideals, initiatives and institutions of the European Union. There is no doubt that Johnson’s record as both newspaper columnist and foreign minister will make it harder for Europe to justify making concessions to him that leaders were not prepared to make for Theresa May. Come the October European Council, there will be voices arguing that any concession to Johnson is a concession to “populism”, and should be avoided.
The question in European minds is whether Johnson can inject enough realism into his fellow Brexiteers to clinch a deal
At the same time, Johnson’s early lead has so far avoided the worst fears in EU capitals that the leadership race would create a rhetorical “race to the bottom” in which candidates out-bid each other to win over the hard Brexit caucus. With Esther McVey out, Michael Gove weakened by the drug-taking scandal and Dominic Raab isolated as too extreme among his fellow candidates over his willingness to shut down parliament, Johnson has only had to remain silent to gain ground.
This has had the effect of reducing the temperature of the contest which looked to be off to a very heated start when Johnson announced his campaign by promising to withhold the Brexit bill if Europe would not give him “clarity” on the future relationship. This would be both illegal and politically counterproductive as the strong pushback from Europe has made clear.
All that said, the European Union and EU capitals also know that Prime Minister Johnson – for all his baggage – has the potential to deliver a Brexit deal where May has repeatedly failed. After three lost meaningful votes, Europe knows that a remainer of May’s ilk is very unlikely to be able to deliver the Brexit deal in parliament, even after the political declaration on the future relationship has been tweaked in a more Brexiteer direction. For that reason, Brussels and the EU capitals are clear that Johnson will be given a hearing, if and when he enters No 10.
The question in European minds is whether Johnson – or any Brexiteer prime minister – can inject enough realism into their fellow Brexiteers to clinch such a deal. The Tory party conference at the end of September will be a key moment for assessing whether that prime minister can walk the line between promising the “liberation” of Brexit while sticking to what is deliverable in Brussels. May failed that test. The fear is that Johnson will do so again.
Europe will do what it can to try to refresh the deal – focusing heavily on amending the political declaration and the hunt for “alternative arrangements” on the Irish border, which May promised but Brexiteers never trusted her to deliver. Talk of a “time limit” to the Irish backstop is probably a step too far. Could Europe really give Johnson what they denied May?
But if Johnson rewrote the declaration to commit the UK to a free trade agreement rather than a customs union and won additional promises that the backstop would not be needed, there is a glimmer of hope in Europe that, with the threat of a disastrous general election looming, the rebellious Tory back benches who defied May might yet fall into line for Johnson.
All concerned know that this is still a long shot, but at the very least they are determined to try, since if the fleeting chance at renegotiation goes wrong, Europe will still not want to be blamed for triggering a no deal. And yet, if it comes to it, the willingness of the EU27 to accept a no deal has risen appreciably since their last gathering in April.
Within very strict limits, the EU will try to help Johnson get a repackaged deal over the line. And while there’s some optimism he will be able to do what May could not, two long years of failed Brexit negotiations mean they know better than to get their hopes up.
• Mujtaba Rahman is the managing director of Europe at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm