If Boris Johnson is going to save his prime ministership, it looks to us as if he’ll need to return to the pro-liberty principles that propelled him into power during the Brexit campaign. He moved into the van by turning the pro-Brexit argument away from resentment over immigration and Europe and toward the promise of liberty and limited government. That’s the argument that, in our estimate, will save his tattered prospects.
Which means that opportunity lurks in the negotiations just begun today between Britain and the European Union. They are ostensibly over trade barriers between the United Kingdom and Ireland. They encompass, though, a bigger question: the E.U.’s insistence on maintaining, via the European high court, a degree of power over Great Britain — that is, the very cause, broadly speaking, that brought Mr. Johnson to Downing Street.
So far, Britain’s foreign secretary, Elizabeth Truss, is holding the line. Britain wants Europe’s high court stripped of any remnant role in disputes that may arise over Brexit. The Brussels megastate wants to retain that authority. The quarrel, which is playing out in the parley at England’s Chevening House, marks a chance for Mr. Johnson to retake control over the Brexit narrative — and his own imperiled prime ministership.
It comes amid calls for Mr. Johnson’s resignation following the disclosure that he attended a garden party in the depths of the Covid pandemic lockdown. More importantly, it’s a moment to mark how and why Brexit happened. It began as what many (not the Sun) reckoned was a Quixotic undertaking, dominated in the early innings by the estimable Nigel Farage. It became bogged down in its focus on immigration.
The Brexit message was too easily caricatured as “too many foreigners,” as one unsympathetic Guardian headline read. Even we, ardently pro-Brexit from the start, wondered whether the cause would prosper in the 2016 referendum. Then Margarget Thatcher’s erstwhile chancellor, Nigel Lawson, took over as chairman for Vote Leave and articulated a powerful argument for how freedom from Brussels would spark innovation and economic revival for Britain.
Mr. Johnson picked up that theme of economic liberty and embroidered it with his own inimitable style, emphasizing in soaring rhetoric the sunlit uplands of freedom that awaited a post-Brexit Britain. Brexit won the day. Yet no sooner did he win a great mandate, than he began compromising the very principles on which he’d beckoned Britain to independence, and his fortunes began to retreat.
This was all wonderfully covered by our Brexit Diarist, Stephen MacLean. Yet Mr. Johnson kept defaulting, and when Covid gave him the opportunity, he, like his counterparts in Europe and America, went for every statist option. Those included work-from-home orders, mask mandates, so-called vaccine passports, and mandatory lockdowns — the last of which Mr. Johnson broke by attending an outdoor party.
Somewhere in there, Bojo lost the thread of Brexit. So now his fate could well be in the hands of Ms. Truss, who replaced the hard-line Brexiteer David Frost. For our taste, she has been a bit too welcoming of her EU counterpart. She welcomed the rascal with a “warmer tone,” presenting him with “an all-British dinner of Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and Kent apple pie,” the Associated Press reports.
Let’s hope that Boris Johnson and Britain prevail in the demand that the EU “remove its top court from its role in resolving any disputes over the Brexit agreement.” What’s at stake is all that was accomplished in the 1980s and what a future with the Commonwealth could bring. Dame Thatcher herself marked this point in 2001 at Plymouth, and Baron Lawson called Brexit “a chance to finish the Thatcher revolution.”
Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor, via Reuters