May Day: British Prime Minister Could Soon Be Forced from Office
Though ostensibly America’s greatest ally, Donald Trump didn’t mention the United Kingdom or its beleaguered leader, Theresa May, in his State of the Union remarks Tuesday night. That could be for the best, as May could very well not be long for the job, according to several people close to the matter.
The British prime minister touched down in China on Wednesday and tried to swat down the speculation surrounding the latest knife-fight in and around Westminster. “I’ve said to you before, I’m not a quitter,” May told reporters aboard her RAF Voyager hours earlier.
Maybe so. But if one man in particular, her foreign secretary Boris Johnson, can get his act together, it may not be up to her. One source close to the Conservative Party leadership reports: “May is incredibly weak, and one wonders how long it can last.” But cautions: “Boris has as many admirers as he has people who loathe him in the party.”
As much has been said in the public press, prompting the constant public responses from Number 10. Keynote Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh laments that Johnson, the longtime would-be-king, is “smelling an imminent vacancy for prime minister.” Accordingly, the foreign secretary, a more tenable Brexitier, “is expected to espouse a clearer exit soon.”
The talk of May’s imminent demise is “definitely credible” says Freddy Gray of the London Spectator, the magazine Johnson edited for more than a half-decade in his former life as a journalist. “But Boris really doesn’t want to be the one to wield the knife since, notoriously, that means you lose.”
Adds another veteran British journalist: “It’s certainly credible politically. He’s the most popular and charismatic guy the Tories have.” Should this come to pass, one wonders how he would jive with Trump: “I’m reasonably well disposed toward Boris. He’s exceptionally intelligent and might do a rather brilliant job. But he’s also a dilettante and would be a big risk. I know it’s difficult, but imagine a Donald Trump who was both a scholar and upper class. That’s Boris.”
A former senior Trump administration official says: “Boris is brilliant. . . . I know him well.” But this person is skeptical of Boris’ actual chances to either coup or succeed May: “Boris??? Too much baggage in the age of TimesUp.”
But should it come to pass, another source in TrumpWorld says the former Telegraph journalist Johnson thinks the U.S. president is lacking in the intellectual sphere, which could cause problems in any eventual peer relationship.
Tom Rogan, the British-native Washington Examiner writer and host of The McLaughlin Group, warns against assuming anything is imminent: “It's bull in my opinion. . . . [May] has secured her position at least until summer.” In recent days, Rogan has been more preoccupied with who Johnson, the former London mayor, could eventually, face off against in a general election. “If [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn becomes prime minister, the special U.S.-U.K. relationship will go into hibernation,” he writes, concerned about Corbyn’s electoral potency, and shouting to the hills that in his assessment, the socialist old-guarder has both ties and sympathies to Iran, Venezuela and China.
Clay Clemens, the professor of European politics at the College of William & Mary, disagrees: “The Tories still think the (bungled) 2017 election was an aberration and that they will beat Corbyn next time around, whenever that it is (I think they are right, conditionally).” And Clemens points out a problem for Johnson: challengers to the right of both him and May. Jacob “Rees-Mogg is ahead of him among grassroots activists.”
A U.S. State Department official, the former spokesman Mark Toner, once flashed a sardonic grin upon learning of Johnson’s ascension to foreign secretary. But some Foggy Bottom alumni approach his rise with guarded optimism. “He’s smart and not the monster he’s portrayed to be,” says a former State Department official. “I thought he was a pretty clever and effective Brexit campaigner.” What if Boris—or Rees-Mogg—doesn’t coup May? This observer expects early elections. “The next general election is not until 2022,” May told reporters on-board the Voyager. Likely wishful think says the former State official—political dynamics could force a new vote if May isn’t removed: “New elections are more likely than assumed. I’d put the chance of them at 60 percent.”
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.