- Gove and May, new front-runners, seen taking a tougher line
- Those picking the new leader were overwhelming in ‘Leave’ camp
Boris Johnson’s dramatic withdrawal from the Conservative leadership race he was favored to win may make it likelier the U.K. will leave the European Union.
While Johnson led the “Leave” campaign, his relatively late conversion to the cause sowed doubts among some analysts and politicians about his commitment to carrying out a process that’s bound to be long and painful.
“If there is one British politician who could pull off a U-turn shamelessly, fudge things and keep the U.K. in, with chutzpah, it was Johnson,” Simon Tilford, deputy-director of the European Center for European Reform, said in a phone interview.
Speculation had mounted that the next premier would find a way to roll back the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU after Prime Minister David Cameron -- and the five declared candidates to succeed him -- said they have no plans to trigger the exit mechanism right away.
Latest events signal that, for now, the Conservative government is determined to take the U.K. out of the EU, with Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Michael Gove the clear front-runners. While May had campaigned for “Remain,” she told supporters and reporters in London on Thursday that “Brexit means Brexit.”
Setting out his agenda, Gove, one of the most ardent supporters of “Leave” through the referendum campaign, described himself as the candidate for change on Friday. He told reporters that he would ensure that the vote would be honored, and end the free movement of people from the EU.
Tilford makes the case that Johnson was “just an opportunist” while Gove is “a genuine outer.” As for May, she was quick to say there must be no attempts to rejoin the union “through the back door and no second referendum.”
“The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict,” she told reporters.
Some in the pro-EU camp are already calling for another vote. With the economy set to take a blow, signs of buyer’s remorse among ‘Leave’ voters may add pressure on the next prime minister to reconsider the implementation of a referendum result that’s not legally binding.
In the meantime, policy makers are swooping into action to cushion the economy. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney this week signaled rates could come down within months. The pound, which had been torpedoed on the Brexit result, falling to a 31-year low, lost as much as 0.4 percent to a low of $1.3262 on Friday.
With both leading candidates more hawkish on immigration, it will be harder for the next government to reach a Norway-style deal that preserves access to the single market but also keeps free labor movement in place, London-based Eurasia analysts Mujtaba Rahman and Charles Lichfield wrote in a client note. Johnson was a different story.
“Despite taking a very tough stance on immigration during the referendum campaign, Johnson has always been pro-immigration,” they wrote.
To prevail, Gove and May must first appeal to their fellow Tory lawmakers, who’ll vote next week. The two candidates with the most support in parliament will then face off in a ballot of the party’s 150,000 members nationwide, due to finish by early September.
They will be tailoring their pitches to party members that are disproportionately white, retired and from the managerial classes -- most of them backers of Brexit, according to a survey by the leading Tory website ConservativeHome.
If the race had gone Johnson’s way, the “natural instinct” of the former London mayor would have led him toward a second referendum, according to Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds.
“Johnson might have been able to sell a narrative along the lines of ’We need to get people to look at the deal, ’” she said.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair piped up to make the case that it was not too late to reverse course.
“Actually the people do have a right to change their mind,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Telegraph newspaper. “But that is not for now.”