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 Brussels every year. They played down the economic risks of Brexit, suggesting that the government could quickly strike a deal with the EU that would allow the United Kingdom to have its cake and eat it too, retaining all the advantages of membership without any of the attendant costs.

After Leave’s victory, many expected Johnson to succeed Cameron then and there. But Gove, Johnson’s erstwhile ally, stabbed him in the back, and Theresa May, Cameron’s Home Secretary, who had for all intents and purposes sat out the referendum campaign, became the victor almost by default. After May won the vote of the parliamentary party, her remaining rival dropped out, freeing her from the need to face an election among the Conservative Party membership.

The party’s failure to field-test its new leader had hugely damaging consequences when, in the spring of 2017, May called an early general election. Opinion polls suggested she would win a wide majority and so reduce her dependence on those hardline Tory MPs for whom even the version of Brexit that she had promised—one that involved leaving the EU’s single market and customs union—didn’t mark a sufficiently clean break from Brussels. But May turned out to be an inept campaigner, and the party’s manifesto, put together by her senior advisers with little or no consultation with her cabinet, seemed to offer little or no relief from the economic austerity that the Conservatives had pursued in government since 2010.

May’s disastrous campaigning managed to lose the Tories their majority, forcing the party to rely on the tiny Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power. The election also intensified, rather than obviated, the need to placate the Tory ultra Brexiteers, not least because May remained determined to not to try to win cooperation from opposition parties instead. May reached a deal with the remaining 27 members of the EU, but it soon became apparent that she would find it near impossible to get her deal through parliament, and that even if by some miracle she did square the circle, the process had generated enough bad blood that her party would force her out soon afterwards.

There was no miracle. Continuing, even temporarily, some kind of customs union with the EU in order to prevent the restoration of a hard border between the Irish Republic (an EU member-state) and the United Kingdom’s province of Northern Ireland proved unacceptable to a small but determined group of Brexiteer ultras, who voted against May’s agreement again and again. They were soon joined by a number of ministers who also considered the agreement a betrayal of Brexit, including some (Johnson among them) who would soon be vying to replace her.

May’s failure to pass her deal, along with the House of Commons’ refusal to sanction a “no-deal” Brexit, forced the prime minister to ask for an extension to the two-year process that should have seen the United Kingdom leave the EU on March 29. That humiliation, capped by the Brexit Party’s triumph in the European elections, meant that she was done for. May resigned as Conservative leader effective June 7, but will remain as prime minister while the party chooses her successor. That will involve a two-stage process. After MPs whittle down the choice to two, the party’s estimated 160,000 members will pick the winner.


The clear front-runner is Boris Johnson, notwithstanding his messy private life and his widely criticized performance as May’s foreign secretary before he resigned over her Brexit deal. His pitch to the 312 Tory MPs who serve alongside him in the House of Commons is that, although other candidates may be prepared, as he is, to take the United Kingdom out of the EU without a deal if necessary, only he has the charisma to match Farage. As well as countenancing a no deal Brexit, he has threatened to withhold the 39 billion pounds the United Kingdom owes the EU, over the protestations of most diplomats, who argue that reneging on that commitment would ensure that no other country would ever again trust the British government in an international negotiation. Johnson’s only other eye-catching policy—a promise to cut the top tax rate for high earners—harks back to the Thatcherite glory days of the 1980s. That policy may appeal to a nostalgic rank-and-file membership that is elderly, right-wing, socially conservative, and now overwhelmingly in favor not just of leaving the EU but also of a no-deal Brexit.

In the first round of parliamentary voting, on Thursday, Johnson won enough votes to pretty much guarantee him a spot in the final two. Barring some catastrophe—something Johnson and his team are trying to avoid by so minimizing his public appearances that some are beginning to worry the party may again fail to properly field-test its leader—the best the other candidates can hope for is to finish second and then for Johnson to somehow implode during the membership vote, which will be wrapped up before the end of July.

Gove, Johnson’s former nemesis, had wagered that his pragmatic stance on Brexit would win him support from both moderate Leavers and former Remainers. But after being forced to admit to taking cocaine several times as a young man—a revelation that led some of the other contenders to admit to using drugs (albeit, they were careful to stress, soft drugs)—Gove’s stock has depreciated.  Some of his support was therefore tipped to shift to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who, having campaigned for Remain under Cameron, has taken to Brexit with all the zeal of a convert. Hunt’s main appeal is that, although he is hardly inspiring, he offers a safe pair of hands and would be less divisive than Johnson. He has not ruled out leaving without a deal, but he, like Gove, emphasizes getting one, even if, unlike Gove, he has been careful not to worry Leavers by talking about another extension. On Thursday, however, Hunt, although he finished in second place (with 43 votes to Johnson’s 114) was only just ahead of Gove (on 37).

Stewart announces his candidacy in London, June 2019
Stewart announces his candidacy in London, June 2019
Henry Nicholls / REUTERS

An air of utter unreality suffuses the whole contest—a mismatch between what it will take in order to win the leadership and the situation the winner will face as a prime minister presiding over a divided country, a hung parliament, and a negotiation with a far more powerful interlocutor, the EU, which has said, again and again, that it will not re-open the deal. And because no one can see beyond Brexit (and the Brexit Party), the candidates have offered little beyond Tory motherhood and apple pie about the direction they would take the Conservative Party (and the country) if and when the separation is achieved.

The one exception to this depressing rule is the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, whose devil-may-care willingness to tell it like it is has resulted in an innovative, enterprising, and endearingly honest campaign. That his admirable efforts seem doomed to failure (he won just 19 MPs on Thursday) tells you all you need to know. Whoever wins the election—Johnson, Hunt, Gove, or a lightning-strike-lucky Stewart—will have the unenviable, perhaps impossible, task of pivoting back to reality in order to rescue the party, and the country, from the Brexit mess.

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