The Brexit Government Comes to Power at Last

Boris Johnson addresses delegates in Birmingham, England, October 2, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Boris Johnson and his new cabinet could well fail, but at the very least the men who led the Leave campaign are now charged with carrying out its result.

A funny thing happened at the moment in 2016 when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union: The winning campaigners dispersed. One of the most consequential poll results in the U.K.’s history provided a mandate to Parliament, but did not produce a government of the men and women who’d made the case for it to voters.

So there was a curious interregnum. Theresa May, a reluctant Remainer, took the premiership from David Cameron. In her first Lancaster House speech, she promised an energetic agenda: The Conservative party would take charge of repairing the frayed edges of the Union, helping working families, and addressing British society’s “burning injustices.” She promised to see the country through Brexit, too, taking the country out of the European customs union and political project. But none of these things came about.

Now, May’s failure to pass a painfully negotiated withdrawal agreement from the EU has brought the end of her government, and birthed another led by the men who made the Brexit result possible. Boris Johnson, the most famous Tory Brexiteer, is now prime minister. His co-campaigner and occasional rival, Michael Gove, is now in charge of contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. Another Brexiteer, Priti Patel, has taken charge of the Home Office. Sajid Javid, a convincing convert to Brexit, is chancellor. And perhaps crucially, the mercurial adviser to the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, is a lead adviser to the PM. It’s a hard-charging and savvy cabinet, built for campaigning across the media.

Even if you have always had doubts about Brexit, this government represents a more proper politics, one in which those who campaigned for and won a mandate now bear the burden of implementing it, and can be held accountable by the public if they fail. It is a refreshing sight, too. For months, the May government had projected tired desperation. By the end, it had basically ceased speaking to its coalition partner, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. It lived in fear of elections, in fear of intrigues, in fear of its own shadow. In announcing her resignation and in the days that followed, May was reduced to sourly warning that her colleagues would soon learn the lesson she’d failed to teach them: that her withdrawal agreement was their only option. The response from friend and enemy alike was pity when it wasn’t contempt.

The Johnson government may be too in love with itself, too anxious for an electoral contest, too optimistic that it can wring a better deal out of Brussels. But at least it’s lively, confident, and active.

Johnson has often been criticized as a man who merely wants to be prime minister. The implication is that he doesn’t have deep convictions, merely a style. But style has helped get him this far. His hair is deliberately messed up, his suits deliberately slightly ill-fitting. That is a conscious choice, and it is what makes him compelling to watch. He seems to have internalized in his school days that the easiest way to defeat his peers in politics and in life was to be cleverer and harder-working than them. It is precisely that shambolic appearance that makes his ostentatious recitations of the Bible and the classics from memory bearable to modern Britain, and so stinging to the hard-groomed, empty-headed apparatchiks who populate so much of modern politics.

With the arrival of this man, and this government, nearly three years too late, Brexit has begun.