Boris Johnson is set to become Britain’s new prime minister, delighting fans of the colorful former mayor of London but dismaying critics who fear that he is intent on pulling the country out of the European Union without a deal in place.
Despite being dismissed by detractors as a buffoon, Johnson will take the reins as premier Wednesday, replacing Theresa May and fulfilling a nearly lifelong ambition to move into 10 Downing St. He beat out Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to become leader of the Conservative Party – and, by extension, prime minister, because the Conservatives hold sway in Parliament – in an internal party election. In effect, about 159,000 Conservative Party members, most of them white and middle-aged or older, decided who would lead the United Kingdom’s 66 million people.
The result of that party poll was announced Tuesday. Johnson received 92,153 votes, and Hunt garnered 46,656.
Johnson’s biggest immediate task will be to figure out how to withdraw Britain from the E.U. in an orderly fashion by the deadline of Oct. 31. The Brexit deal struck between May and the E.U. was voted down by Parliament three times, which forced her to step down.
Johnson campaigned for Brexit before the 2016 referendum and has pledged that the U.K. would leave the E.U. by Oct. 31, “do or die.” Although he contends that he can wrest a better deal from the E.U., time is extremely short, and European officials have taken a dim view of reopening negotiations. If no new agreement is struck, Johnson says he is prepared to let the U.K. stumble out of the union without a deal, which many analysts and officials warn would result in economic catastrophe. Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the economy would shrink by 2% within a year.
Britain’s entertainment industry is overwhelmingly in favor of the country’s continued membership in the European Union. Alan Bishop, the head of Britain’s Creative Industries Federation, issued a public letter after Johnson’s election Tuesday warning against a disorderly Brexit.
“Alongside many other industries, we will continue to stress the extreme damage that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit,” Bishop wrote. “The free movement of goods, services, capital and people have underpinned the sector’s success, and we urge all the leaders of the U.K.’s political parties to support a second referendum rather than crash out of the E.U.”
Johnson acknowledged the challenge of maintaining a deep partnership with Europe while declaring Britain’s independence from it. But he declared in a victory speech that he and his fellow Conservatives were up to the task.
“Do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?” he asked the audience of Conservative Party members. “I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me.”
Like Donald Trump – who has praised Johnson and tweeted that he would “be great” as prime minister – Johnson is an extremely divisive figure. To his supporters, he brings a populist touch to politics and a disarming charm with his messy mop of blond hair, his fondness for bon mots and his British boosterism. To his detractors, Johnson is an unprincipled opportunist with no goal except achieving power, whose performance as London mayor and as British foreign secretary was marred by embarrassing gaffes, an indifference to the details of governing and a tendency to make extravagant but empty promises. As a columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph, he has called black children “piccaninnies” and, critics say, has fanned Britain’s growing Islamophobia.
“He connects with the public in a way that other politicians have not done for a long number of years,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, told the BBC. “But…it doesn’t work when you’re dealing in negotiations with the chancellor of Germany or the president of France or whosoever it might be.”
Some of Johnson’s sharpest critics come from his own party. Some senior Conservatives have warned that they would be willing to bring down their own party in government if that is what it would take to stop Johnson from taking Britain out of the E.U. without a deal. Shortly before the party leadership election result was revealed, an education minister became the latest Conservative government official to resign, or to announce an intention to resign, on the basis that she could not serve in a Johnson administration.
Besides his public life and persona, Johnson’s personal life has also come under scrutiny. In 2004, he lied to fellow members of Parliament and the public about an extramarital affair, telling reporters on his front porch that he and his wife were working out their problems, only to turn around and discover she had locked him out. In recent weeks, Johnson has refused to say how many children he has fathered.