With a Growing Urgency, Boris Johnson Grabs the Limelight

At the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson excoriated Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for Brexit.CreditCreditNeil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

BIRMINGHAM, England — The lines began building two hours before Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson walked into the 1,500-seat hall, to be greeted by wild cheers and a noisy ovation. As his speech reached a climax, there were uncontrolled whoops of joy.

Like him or loathe him — and there are many in both camps — it was impossible to ignore Mr. Johnson, whose appearance on Tuesday at the Conservative Party’s annual conference overshadowed an announcement on immigration policy from the person whose job he so obviously craves: Prime Minister Theresa May.

But there also seemed to be an element of desperation beneath Mr. Johnson’s ill-disguised ambition.

“He’s aware that his political tide is seeping away,” said Richard Hayton, an associate professor of politics at the University of Leeds. “If he doesn’t get the leadership in the aftermath of what will happen over Brexit in the next few months, it will pass him by for a new generation.”

Mr. Johnson made a damning, if familiar, attack on Mrs. May’s plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as Brexit — a blueprint that would keep some close economic ties to the bloc to minimize disruption to trade and protect the economy.

A leader of the victorious pro-Brexit referendum campaign, Mr. Johnson favors a cleaner, more brutal break, and his speech appeared calculated to deepen a split within the Conservative Party that threatens to unseat Mrs. May and wreck her government.

Delegates listened to a panel discussion on the third day of the Conservative Party’s conference in Birmingham.CreditOli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Her proposals — called the Chequers plan after the country residence where they were forged — are dangerous, unstable, an outrage and a cheat, and they amount to a political humiliation, Mr. Johnson said.

“This is not taking back control, it is forfeiting control,” said Mr. Johnson, who suggested that the prime minister’s plan would leave Britain to be, metaphorically, “paraded in manacles” down one of the main avenues of Brussels, like Caratacus, a British chieftain who led the resistance to the Roman conquest.

Eloquent, charismatic and utterly incorrigible, Mr. Johnson is one of the best-known personalities in British politics, famous for his ruffled hair and his flair for both the English language and publicity.

Six months ago Mr. Johnson seemed a beleaguered figure as foreign secretary, one of the biggest jobs in government but one that also exposed some of his shortcomings as a politician.

However, his resignation from the cabinet over the Chequers plan has revived his popularity in the hard-line, pro-Brexit faction of the party. Recently, he almost seemed to be auditioning for the role of Britain’s Donald Trump — whose negotiating skills he has compared favorably with those of Mrs. May — likening Muslim women who wear burqas to mailboxes and seeming to make common cause with Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist who is a champion of right-wing populism.

The idea, analysts say, is to nail down the Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party, which could be decisive in any intraparty vote for the next party leader, who would then become prime minister. Party members are disproportionately older and in favor of Brexit.


Theresa May’s plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would keep some close economic ties to the bloc to minimize disruption to trade and protect the economy.CreditNeil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

“There isn’t a unifying ‘leave’ figure and they want to be able to unite behind a candidate, so there is some political space for Boris,” Mr. Hayton said.

On Tuesday Mr. Johnson’s speech overshadowed an announcement from Mrs. May and her home secretary, Sajid Javid, that after Brexit, a new plan would remove favorable immigration status for European Union citizens. Mr. Javid also called for a crackdown on middle-class drug users.

Predictably, though, it was Mr. Johnson who dominated the headlines even if there was no hint from him of any imminent bid for the leadership. That suggests that Mr. Johnson thinks that the crisis over Brexit needs to gather pace before a challenge against Mrs. May could succeed.

Still, there is no guarantee that Mr. Johnson would win a leadership fight. Some colleagues suspect that he adopted the Brexit cause not so much from conviction as to increase his prospects of becoming party leader. Many fellow Conservative lawmakers are scathing about him.

In an interview with The Daily Mail, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, dismissed Mr. Johnson as a man unable to grasp detail and predicted that he would never become prime minister.

On Tuesday, David Gauke, the justice secretary, told the BBC that while Mr. Johnson “always attracts lots of attention,” it was time for the “credible and serious leadership” that Mrs. May offers.


There was a sense that the next few months may provide the last chance for Boris Johnson to achieve his ambition to become prime minister.CreditToby Melville/Reuters

“The question is whether there is just too much anger among colleagues to see him get anywhere near the leadership,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, referring to Mr. Johnson.

Others fancy their chances, too, and the party conference has been something of a beauty contest among potential successors to Mrs. May, whose leadership has been in question since she lost her parliamentary majority last year. Possible contenders include Mr. Javid, Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary.

Although she insists she does not want the job, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives and a gay mother-to-be, has emerged as a potential leader who could change perceptions of a party that frets about its chronic lack of appeal to younger voters.

However, it is unwise to underestimate Mr. Johnson, whose star quality still marks him out in a field of mainly drab competitors.

And if nothing else, Mr. Johnson’s ruthless courtship of the party’s right wing has shaped the debate over the succession to Mrs. May, encouraging other contenders to ratchet up their anti-European rhetoric to win support from Euroskeptic activists.

That may explain some jarring comments from Mr. Hunt — Mr. Johnson’s successor as foreign secretary — who compared the European Union to the Soviet Union.

Reactions to those remarks included one from Vytenis Andriukaitis, a European Commission member from Lithuania, who offered to explain the differences between the two entities from the standpoint of someone who works in Brussels and was born in a Soviet gulag.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Soon-or-Never Moment For a Charismatic Briton. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Let’s block ads! (Why?)