The G7 and Nato summits, which finished last week, were Boris Johnson’s last hurrah as leader of the United Kingdom. When the heads of the western alliance next assemble they will be dealing with yet another British prime minister — the fourth since 2016. Or possibly the fifth if there is an interim prime minister between Johnson and his “permanent” successor. Or perhaps the sixth, if there is a general election between now and next summer.
British officials arriving at an international summit will have to deal with the kinds of semi-serious questions that have traditionally troubled the Italians. Remind me, who is your current prime minister? Is this one any good or a joker? How long do you expect them to last?
Countries can explain away this kind of domestic instability, if they appear strong and confident in other respects. Japan had seven prime ministers in the 1980s, when its economy was booming. But Johnson’s Britain is a troubled country in a dangerous time. The UK’s inflation rate is the highest of the G7 nations and its projected growth next year, according to the IMF, will be the lowest among the group.
To most foreign observers, the root of all these troubles is obvious. The Brexit vote of 2016 destabilized Britain’s politics, seriously damaged the economy and ruptured 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 acknowledged to be a serial liar, deeply irresponsible and incapable of acknowledging hard choices might cast a shadow of a doubt over his signature “achievement”. Could it perhaps be that his prolific dishonesty and refusal to look facts in the face extended to the way he campaigned for Brexit?
But what is overseas remains unsayable at home. Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labor opposition, has decided that he will not, under any circumstances, suggest that Brexit was a mistake and should be reversed. As a tactical calculation, this may make sense, since reopening Brexit would give the floundering Touries an issue to campaign on. But in political and economic terms, it means that Britain will remain saddled with Johnson’s main legacy for the foreseeable future. The ultra-cautious Starmer has even ruled out rejoining the EU single market or the customs union; or allowing free movement of labor with Europe. As Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, was fond of saying: “Brexit means Brexit.”
A new British prime minister will have the opportunity to improve personal relationships with key European leaders — in particular France’s Emmanuel Macron. But, while this is certainly a possibility, it is not a given. The Conservative party could well choose a Brexit hardliner as the next prime minister — one who would prolong the confrontation with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. The fact that this protocol, agreed by Johnson, does indeed create an internal customs border within the UK (something he always denied) is another part of the outgoing premier’s poisonous bequest to his successor.
The one foreign capital where Johnson will be truly missed is Kyiv. Among western governments, the UK, led by its prime minister, has been one of the most supportive of Ukraine, both in diplomatic and military terms. In recent weeks Johnson has often appeared happier in Ukraine than in the UK. But Britain’s strong support for Ukraine reflects a firm cross-party consensus that is almost certain to persist, whoever becomes the next prime minister.
That does not mean, however, that the choice of the next UK prime minister is irrelevant to the crisis in Ukraine. On the contrary, whoever replaces Johnson in 10 Downing Street will step straight into the most dangerous geopolitical crisis since the end of the cold war.
Britain’s next leader will need calm, solid judgment, an ability to build relationships with allies and an understanding of the risks involved. These are qualities that used to be taken for granted in a prime minister of Britain. But looking at the field of contenders already jestling to succeed Johnson, it is hard to be optimistic that the next man or woman will be up to the challenge.