Brexit champ Boris Johnson balks at leadership run

The triumph of the Brexit vote should have catapulted its most famous Tory backer to the pinnacle of British politics. Flamboyant London mayor Boris Johnson was widely expected to contend for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the office of Prime Minister. However, Johnson backed out this morning — perhaps after getting a political knife in the back:

Former London mayor Boris Johnson shocked Britain Thursday by announcing that he will not join the race to be the next leader of the country’s ruling Conservative party — and prime minister.

The New York-born politician was among the most prominent campaigners for the U.K. to leave the European Union. He was also considered the favorite to succeed David Cameron as the country’s leader. …

“I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he told reporters just as the window for nominations was about to close.

What happened? Johnson hasn’t exactly been shy about his ambitions to run the UK from 10 Downing Street, and this was the perfect opportunity. Johnson had championed Brexit and should be basking in the political glory of its narrow win. There would be no better time for those ambitions to transform into action.

Unfortunately, one of his allies decided to pre-empt Johnson, challenging Johnson’s temperament along the way:

Johnson’s political ally Michael Gove announced he would throw his hat into the race. Gove, the justice secretary, campaigned alongside Johnson to push for the U.K.’s departure from the EU.

The Associated Press reported that Gove’s announcement shook up the race for prime minister:

“Gove, a close friend of Cameron’s, had previously said he would back Johnson, but in a commentary in the Spectator magazine he said he had come ‘reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.’

“His U-turn will hurt the chances of Johnson, who succeeded in widening his popularity among Conservative members and beyond as London mayor, but is viewed warily by many other lawmakers in the ruling party.”

Johnson apparently agreed, because his withdrawal came less than a day later. A Johnson run would have given British voters an analog to Donald Trump in their own national elections — a free-wheeling populist with either (a) a refreshingly direct approach, or (b) a lack of discipline, depending on one’s perspective. Is that bad news, or good news? British voters will have to tell us.

For now, though, it doesn’t change much of anything else. Gove will pursue the Brexit if Tories choose him to lead the party and they win the next election. Cameron’s expected immediate replacement until the elections, Theresa May, insists that Brexit will proceed and that no second referendum will take place:

British interior minister Theresa May, the bookmakers’ favourite to replace David Cameron as prime minister, said on Thursday there was no going back on Britain leaving the EU but that divorce talks would not start until the end of the year.

Launching her leadership bid, May said there would be no second referendum on EU membership, nor any bid to rejoin, and she also ruled out any immediate tax rises.

“Brexit means Brexit,” said May, 59, who backed the Remain campaign ahead of last week’s referendum although she kept a low profile.

“The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict,” she said. “There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”

At least so far, the political leadership in Britain has heard the will of the people, and are acting in accordance with it. The long delay in “divorce talks,” as Reuters calls it, might give some room for the will of the people to change — or to force an election on the question so as to get a parliament which will follow through on it.

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