What Britain needs from its next prime minister


Theresa May’s departure as Britain’s prime minister (PM) won’t heal the country’s divisions or end its Brexit nightmare. This drawn-out crisis is so far from being resolved, her successor might soon regret winning the top job. But the task isn’t hopeless, and the right kind of leadership could move Britain and the European Union (EU) to a better outcome.

The main contenders to replace May have criticised her efforts — tireless, sincere and ultimately futile efforts — to strike a compromise with the EU.

Most favour a so-called clean Brexit over the one she devised, which would have left the UK attached to the union, but not part of it, still subject to many of its rules. And they’re opposed to a second referendum that would revisit the decision to leave.

The front-runner, former mayor of London Boris Johnson, is popular with rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party because he backs those positions. This makes a ruinous no-deal Brexit seem more likely. But things needn’t unfold this way.

Whichever Tory comes after May will be able — for a while at least — to worry less about personal ambition and more about the country’s interests and the verdict of history. Don’t rule out new found flexibility among even the hardest of hard-Brexiteers, once the new leader has to contend with the actual consequences of his or her decisions.

In addition, a leader sincerely committed to the view that Britain would be better off outside the EU should still want to make the country’s divide over the issue less bitter. And the only way to do that is to be honest.

Up to now, honesty in this debate has been in short supply. May failed partly because she insisted that her various proposed withdrawal agreements offered the best of both worlds — the benefits of a close relationship with the EU without the costs of diminished sovereignty. That was false, as Remainers and Leavers alike could plainly see. There’s no superior middle way: In the end, the fundamental choice is in or out.

Advocates of a clean Brexit are wrong on the substance, because the benefits of remaining in the EU greatly outweigh the benefits of leaving. The gain in effective sovereignty upon leaving is smaller than the loss of voice as a member of the EU; and the gain from negotiating bilateral trade deals beyond the EU is smaller than the harm from loss of privileges within the union.

A principled advocate for Leave might legitimately disagree — but owes it to voters to explain why; to calmly say what Leave will really mean; and to prepare the country for the economic dislocation it’s bound to entail.

The most important adjustment that a principled pro-Brexit leader will need to make is also the most difficult — namely, to submit the judgment that “no deal is better than a bad deal” to a second referendum. Precisely because the debate up to now has been so dishonest, the 2016 referendum cannot be seen as binding.

A clean-Brexit PM ought to welcome the opportunity to put the case for Leave to the country — in effect, for the first time. Then it would fall to Remainers of every party to bring their own protracted hedging and equivocation to an end, and make the principled case for reversing the earlier Brexit vote. Certainly, it’s to be hoped that their strong argument would prevail. But even if it does not, the country could better come to terms with Brexit so long as its leaders tried in good faith to serve their interests.

The next PM should see that a second referendum, honestly conducted, would not be a betrayal of voters, but an affirmation that they come first. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.