LONDON — Boris Johnson, Britain’s brash former foreign secretary, on Tuesday won the contest to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May, with his party handing the job of resolving the country’s three-year Brexit nightmare to one of the architects of the project, and one of the country’s most polarizing politicians.
Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt, his successor as foreign secretary, in the battle for the leadership of Britain’s governing Conservative Party, winning by the substantial margin of 66% of the postal vote held among its membership. Although the Conservatives’ working majority in Parliament is very small, it appears to be enough to ensure that Johnson will succeed May as prime minister Wednesday.
He would take office at one of the most critical moments in Britain’s recent history, immediately facing the toughest challenge of his career, to manage his nation’s exit from the European Union in little more than three months. But his policy swerves, lack of attention to detail and contradictory statements leave the country guessing how things will unfold.
“I know that there will be people around the place who will question the wisdom of your decision, and there may even be some people here who still wonder quite what they have done,” Johnson told the party meeting in London on Tuesday at which the vote results were announced.
While he has a mandate from his party’s dues-paying members, the hard facts that brought down May have not changed: deep divisions on Brexit among Conservatives in Parliament, implacable opposition from other parties, and the insistence of European officials that they will make no major concessions.
Johnson has doubled down lately on Brexit, promising to take Britain out of the European Union by the Oct. 31 deadline “do or die,” if necessary risking the economic dislocation of leaving without any agreement, rather than seek an extension.
“We’re going to get Brexit done on Oct. 31, we’re going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can-do, and we’re once again going to believe in ourselves,” he promised Tuesday. “Like some slumbering giant, we’re going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of doubt and negativity.”
May and Johnson will visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, for her assent to the transition. The short journey from Parliament to the palace will be the culmination of a colorful career for Johnson, a former journalist whose ambition as a child was to become “world king,” who wrote a biography of his hero Winston Churchill, and who has been praised by President Donald Trump.
Trump tweeted congratulations to Johnson on Tuesday, adding, “He will be great!”
Johnson’s rare mix of charismatic bluster and absent-minded air — either charming or maddening, depending on the listener and the moment — and his unusual gift for communicating with voters have made him one of the country’s best-known politicians for years, and carried him to two terms as London mayor.
But his support for Brexit, along with his penchant for pronouncements that do not always hold up under scrutiny, has also made him a highly divisive figure. The focus will soon shift to the makeup of Johnson’s Cabinet and what clues that provides for whether he will pursue his hard line on Brexit once in power or dial down the rhetoric and try to seek a deal with the European Union.
Parliament rejected May’s exit plan three times this year, yet it is also firmly against risking severe disruption and huge economic damage by leaving without any agreement at all.
Turbulence over Brexit has even raised questions about the durability of the United Kingdom itself, prompting renewed talk about possible Scottish independence and a united Ireland. Writing on Twitter, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, congratulated Johnson but said that “it would be hypocritical not to be frank about the profound concerns I have at the prospect of his premiership.”
Johnson has said that a renegotiated Brexit settlement with the European Union would be the optimal outcome, though it is hard to envision how one could be hammered out and, given the looming summer vacation, approved in Parliament by the end of October. And there is no sign that the European Union is willing to contemplate the wholesale changes that Johnson has promised his supporters.
Though they will engage with him, other European leaders are hardly enthusiastic about Britain’s prime minister in waiting, who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“There’s a substantial trust deficit between Boris and the European Union, and that goes back to the Leave campaign, but also his time as foreign secretary,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the consulting firm Eurasia Group.
The reaction from European officials Tuesday was muted.
“In my experience, whenever there is a new prime minister in any member state or country, he or she will be welcomed as a colleague by their colleagues and they’ll try to sort it out,” Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels. “I don’t think his character, persona or attitude makes any difference in that sense.”
As a reporter in Brussels from 1989 to 1994, Johnson specialized in a genre of journalism that ridiculed the European Union, playing on a sense of British detachment from the process of European integration.
In 2016, he became the figurehead of the campaign to leave the bloc and helped it to a victory that shocked much of the world. Earlier this year Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely.”
With efforts to quit the bloc stalled, Johnson has promised to ramp up British preparations for a “no deal” Brexit and argues that greater preparedness and political determination will force the European Union to offer a better deal than the one May negotiated.
Most analysts think only modest changes are achievable and the bloc will refuse to scrap Johnson’s bugbear, the so-called Irish backstop plan. The backstop ensures that, whatever the outcome of long-term trade talks between London and Brussels, goods will keep flowing, without border checks, between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic.
Taking Britain out of the bloc without an agreement appears to be Johnson’s backup plan. But Parliament has voted in nonbinding motions against a no-deal exit, and opposition to it is growing.
Several ministers had already announced plans to quit the government, saying they could not support any policy that might lead to Brexit without an agreement. They were joined Tuesday by Anne Milton, who gave up her job as an education minister just before Johnson’s victory was declared.
The most prominent politician to announce his resignation is the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, who is expected to play a significant role in trying to stop a “no deal” Brexit. Others are expected to resign from the Cabinet on Wednesday, including Rory Stewart, who said on Twitter that he would be leaving his job as international development secretary.
Although other nations like Ireland would be hit very hard, one report said that the costs of “no deal” would be four times as large for the British than for the rest of the European Union collectively. That is because exports to the European Union make up around 13% of Britain’s economic output, while exports the other way account for 2.5% of the bloc’s output.
Johnson has not ruled out suspending Parliament to take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, but last week lawmakers approved by 41 votes a measure that would make it harder to bypass Parliament.
Tobias Ellwood, a defense minister, told Sky News that even if Johnson pushed through a “no deal” Brexit he would have to “crawl back literally moments later” to ask the bloc for emergency arrangements. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, has also warned of a “collision with reality.”
Tony Blair, a former Labour Party prime minister, said that Johnson would be warned by officials that the European Union will not renegotiate plans to avoid a hard border with Ireland, and that “no deal” was a huge risk.
Johnson would have to choose whether to back away from his promise to scrap the Irish backstop or try to pursue a no-deal exit — an outcome that could, if blocked by lawmakers, force a general election or possibly a second referendum, Blair said.
“He will face the facts and decide that if you try to engineer no deal without Parliament — against Parliament’s wishes — and without public endorsement, you better hope it works perfectly,” Blair said. “Because if it doesn’t, you’re going to be in all sorts of difficulty for the rest of your time in politics.”