On Brexit, It’s Decision Time for Theresa May (and for Her Critics)

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, has attacked Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiating style and suggested that her government lacked “guts.”

LONDON — “Brexit” hard-liners have been compared to frogs being boiled alive, unaware that the water is being heated gradually to lethal temperatures.

At a critical meeting of Britain’s bitterly divided cabinet on Friday, the question is whether any of the hard-liners will finally realize the difficulties and leap. The chief one to watch will be the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, perhaps the most overtly disloyal member of the rancorous cabinet.

The meeting is being billed as a moment of truth for Prime Minister Theresa May, though one of many that have come and gone over the past year or so. At her official country residence, Chequers, she is expected to present her latest plan to soften the economic impact of Britain’s rupture with the European Union, known as Brexit.

Most analysts think Mrs. May’s proposal would keep Britain closely aligned to Europe’s rules on manufactured goods, avoiding customs and other checks at frontiers, while services would be further removed, allowing Britain to strike non-European trade deals in these areas.

In significant ways, this would make Britain a “rule taker not a rule maker,” and could require the country to accept other obligations — perhaps including contributions to the bloc’s budget. That is hardly the Brexit that the hard-liners envisioned and sold to voters.

And so, this Friday, the dilemma for the hard-liners becomes acute: Should they continue the fight from inside, but risk facilitating a plan they despise; or should they quit and try to overthrow Mrs. May, but with no certainty of success?

“The water is getting hotter and hotter, so do they jump out?” said Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris, The Adventures of Boris Johnson.” “If so, do they endanger the whole thing and enrage some of their more middle-of-the-road colleagues?”

The pressure is on. With nine months until Britain’s scheduled departure, Mrs. May needs to present a credible plan to the European Union; talks in Brussels could face collapse if her proposal is another cop-out.

Perhaps the big surprise, however, is that Mr. Johnson is still at the cabinet table at all, after months of semipublic rebellion.

In comments that leaked in recent weeks, he unfavorably compared Mrs. May’s negotiating style with President Trump’s and suggested that her government lacked “guts.” In another conversation, he dismissed the growing concerns of business about Brexit with a four-letter expletive.

When the Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hard-line Brexiteer, wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph that many interpreted as an implicit threat to Mrs. May’s leadership, Mr. Johnson defended him.

Mrs. May’s hold on power has been in doubt since the Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in elections last year. Yet, none of her potential challengers can be sure they could successfully unseat her, nor can they be assured that they would benefit personally if they did so.

Mr. Johnson’s prospects of taking over are falling, not rising, with fresher contenders emerging, including the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, who, as the son of an immigrant bus driver, might broaden the party’s appeal.

But for all the talk of her political weakness, Mrs. May could be surprisingly hard to dislodge. Brexiteers are confident they have the necessary 48 votes to set off the challenge. But in the confidence vote that would follow, Mrs. May would need to win the support of only a simple majority of the 316 Conservative members of Parliament.

If she were to lose that, then Conservative lawmakers would choose two candidates, with the final vote going to party members (who tend to be older, more right-wing and pro-Brexit).

But getting rid of Mrs. May would be “extremely hard,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“If you were to say to Conservative members of Parliament, ‘Would you like two months of leadership contests, exposing all the divisions in the party in full public gaze in the middle of the most vital negotiations in recent times?’” said Mr. Bale, “I think most would rather say ‘No.’”

On top of that, because a full-blown leadership contest would be likely to yield a Brexit hard-liner like Mr. Johnson, lawmakers who want a pragmatic Brexit would probably side with Mrs. May. Brexit enthusiasts might fear that a candidate who is more pro-Europe than Mrs. May could sneak through.

Even if Mrs. May were pushed out, Mr. Johnson would have to worry not just about Mr. Javid but also about rival hard-line Brexit supporters, including Mr. Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, as well as more moderate contenders (perhaps as many as 20, according to the London Sunday Times.)

This range of options presents another dilemma for the Conservative Party: Replace Mrs. May now with someone who might be a tougher Brexit negotiator, or wait and choose someone with a better chance of winning the next election, scheduled for 2022.

“You might feel that Gove is up for negotiating a much better deal, but if you did that it’s hard not to keep him for the next election and there is no evidence that he will capture the hearts and minds of voters,” said Mr. Gimson, who noted that Mr. Johnson’s fortunes are currently in “eclipse.”

Mr. Johnson’s performance as foreign secretary has been widely criticized, while the legacy of his divisive campaign for Brexit in the 2016 referendum hovers over him like a dark cloud.

“He’s been terribly badly damaged by his time as foreign secretary,” Mr. Bale said, adding, “because he made promises on Brexit that do not seem realizable, because the Brexit negotiations have not gone well and because of his disloyalty to the prime minister.”

Mr. Johnson’s reputation took another recent hit over the government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport; many voters in his parliamentary constituency, which is in the vicinity of the airport, oppose the plans.

He once promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop construction, Mr. Johnson provoked ridicule when he traveled to Afghanistan — ostensibly on official business, but also to avoid having to vote for the proposal.

An endgame is now approaching for Brexit, however, and tensions are rising.

Getting the Brexit faction to work together is difficult, Mr. Gimson said, since there is little trust and no agreement about who should take over from Mrs. May. Mr. Johnson, he added, is “only a team player if he’s the captain.”

Nevertheless, pushing Brexit supporters too far on Friday would be a risk.

In volatile political times, Mr. Gimson said, there is “always the risk of provoking an avalanche.”

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