The Surreal Contest to Succeed Theresa May

Can Anyone Sort Out the Brexit Mess?

Johnson launches his campaign in London, June 2019 Henry Nicholls / REUTERS

In April 1916, a group of Irish Republicans took over much of the center of Dublin and declared independence. The British government reacted swiftly. It sent thousands of troops to restore order, and, once the rebellion had been crushed, executed its ringleaders. Although the Easter Rising failed to end British rule, it did succeed in reinvigorating the Irish independence movement, an effort that culminated in the Irish Free State six years later. A few months after the uprising, the poet W. B. Yeats wrote that things were “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

In the wake of some of the worst election results it has ever experienced, the British Conservative Party, the country’s oldest and most successful political force, may be feeling as if it is trapped in Yeats’ poem. Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party—a terrible beauty if ever there was one—humiliated the governing Conservatives at the European Parliament election last month and is now running ahead of the Tories in polls for the next general election. It is in this febrile atmosphere that the Conservatives are choosing their next leader and the country’s next prime minister, praying that he can turn things around.


Three years ago, the United Kingdom voted, 52 percent to 48 percent, to leave the European Union. That shock result triggered the resignation of David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and prime minister who had called the referendum, gambling that a vote to remain would finally settle the arguments over Europe that had split his party for decades.

Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and one of a number of high-profile Conservative politicians who came out against their own government’s line, played the starring role in the Leave campaign. Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers, including Cameron’s longtime ally Michael Gove, promised voters that by leaving the EU, they could “take back control,” primarily of the United Kingdom’s borders but also of the billions of pounds the country paid

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