UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reportedly once said that he enjoyed trying to change the course of history, even if that meant “throwing rocks into glass houses and listening to the shattering of glass.” So it’s no wonder he thinks that US President Donald Trump would be a great Brexit leader.
“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Britain’s chief diplomat told a room of 20 Conservative Party guests at a private dinner Wednesday night, in an off-the-record talk leaked to Buzzfeed. “He’d go in bloody hard. ... There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
It’s hard to believe that Johnson was as surprised as his friends claimed he was to learn that his comments had been leaked. He was throwing red meat to critics of his boss, Prime Minister Theresa May, before a parliamentary debate next week on legislation to repeal the 1972 act that brought the UK into Europe, and before a European summit at the end of the month.
The timing was perfect: Brexiter morale has been flagging. There have now been 14 consecutive YouGov polls showing that a majority of Britons think the decision to leave the European Union was wrong, though the difference is within the margin of error. If a referendum were held now, a majority would probably vote to remain.
Apart from the fact that the UK is leaving, almost nothing is decided. May’s top aides can’t agree on what sort of customs relationship Britain can accept, with Brussels rejecting all the proposals so far. Trade talks haven’t begun in earnest. Many other issues are equally divisive, from UK access to the EU’s satellite navigation program to how the value-added tax will be collected.
To hard-line Brexiters like Johnson, all this minutia is ruining a beautiful historical moment. Johnson is worried that people are growing bored, alarmed by prognostications of economic decline and no longer excited by the prospect of “control.” Johnson’s leaked statements may have rallied the troops, the way his 4,000-word Daily Telegraph article about a “glorious Brexit” did back in September.
His comment about how Trump would do Brexit sums up the different ways that Brexiters and Remainers approach the issue. Brexiters are focused on the destination, and don’t care much about what gets broken along the way. Remainers want to tread carefully to avoid costly mistakes. For them, if it turns out that the destination has to change a little, so be it. They never wanted this journey in the first place.
To the pro-Brexit side, invoking Trump keeps the focus on leaving, and defeating, the EU, which Johnson refers to as “the enemy.” The more preparations are made and the more discussions drag on, the greater the risks of squandering the great Churchillian moment that Johnson, a biographer of the great wartime leader, has championed.
Wrecking balls have their uses, but it’s absurd to suggest that momentous policy decisions don’t require meticulous preparation. Churchill wrote of the situation facing him in May 1940, that he felt “that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Preparations are useless for Brexiters because they have become aware that the more you look at the detail, the harder it becomes to see how the UK will execute the radical break with Europe that they crave without feeling a lot of pain. Johnson’s call for a gutsy Brexit is really a call for not sweating the detail. It’s a seductive political philosophy for these polarized times and absolves the follower of having to think much. Trump uses it regularly.
If wrecking-ball politics hasn’t yet created too much havoc, that’s because the rest of the world is largely still playing by rules created over decades and centuries, following armed conflicts, trade wars and financial crises. The whole reason there are multilateral institutions, summits and meticulous mandarin-led preparations is that past experience suggests that these work better than breaking stuff and then worrying later about what to put in its place. But “worry more and pray hard” is hardly a message to rally the Brexit troops.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. --- Ed.