Nobody seriously believes that Mr. Johnson, who is widely held in disdain in Brussels, especially after his gaffe-prone stint as foreign secretary, will be able to wrest a better deal than the diligent Mrs. May got in two years of arduous negotiations. In resigning from Mrs. May’s cabinet a year ago, Mr. Johnson proclaimed
with typical hyperbole that under her Brexit deal Britain was “truly headed for the status of colony.” The passions roused by such populists, however, easily degenerate into nationalism, intolerance, and racism.
British Treasury studies
have predicted slowed economic growth and high costs from lost trade — far from the patently fictional savings of 350 million pounds a week
that Mr. Johnson blithely advertised on his pro-Brexit campaign bus. Such realities seem not to worry Mr. Johnson any more than facts much trouble President Trump or any of the new brand of nationalist leaders in Europe. Their popularity is built on emotional appeals to a national glory purportedly lost to globalization and treacherous bureaucracy. In their rhetoric, “sovereignty,” “the people” and “the nation” are the noble opposite of multilateral cooperation and the prosaic, technocratic expertise of the unelected people who do the work of government.
Now Mr. Johnson’s bombast is about to collide with the realities that undermined Mrs. May’s efforts. The European Union will not allow the restoration of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south and will insist on the “backstop” guarantees that undermined Mrs. May’s deal. A majority in Parliament still opposes a “hard Brexit.” The Conservatives do not have a majority in the legislature, and even a minor rebellion by members of Parliament opposed to Mr. Johnson’s leadership could force new elections.
The chief challenge before Mr. Johnson comes on Oct. 31, when Britain must leave the European Union with or without a deal. Theresa May, who resigned as prime minister after her plan for a negotiated break with the European Union was thrice rejected by Parliament, managed at least to postpone the deadline. Mr. Johnson, however, is among the most vociferous champions of making a break no matter what. In his campaign for the Conservative leadership, he both argued that he knows how to get a better deal from the European Commission and that he welcomes a “hard Brexit” on Oct. 31.