- - Monday, July 1, 2019

LONDON — In a country known for its summer rains, Britons have been getting an unwelcome deluge of democracy.

The United Kingdom is about to get its third prime minister in three years as Conservative Party activists prepare to select their next leader to chart a path out of the Brexit wilderness.

British voters also just had to weigh in on recent European parliamentary elections, which shouldn’t have been needed if the political leadership had left the European Union on time in March. On top of that, voters have weathered two referendums in recent years — one on Scottish independence and another on European Union membership — and there is talk of more to come.

Some are getting are annoyed, particularly as all the voting appears to have done little to resolve the country’s political divisions and confusion.

“I’m totally fatigued by all these elections,” said Robin Holden, a 72-year-old retired manager from North Yorkshire and a paid-up member of the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories. “Things are too febrile at the moment. We’re all fed up, to be honest.”



Now comes another round of voting, although it won’t be by the people.

Theresa May resigned as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, and it’s now up to party members to choose her successor. As leader of the largest party in Westminster, the winner also will become the next prime minister.

Conservative Party members have a choice of two candidates.

The front-runner is colorful Boris Johnson, who is close to President Trump, a former mayor of London and, briefly, Mrs. May’s foreign secretary. Mr. Johnson has a reputation for gaffes that some find humorous and others find troubling. He has referred to black people as “pickaninnies” and compared veiled Muslim women to mailboxes. He spent much of the past two weeks dealing with the fallout from a leaked tape of a heated argument he was having with his live-in girlfriend.

Facing off against the rumpled Mr. Johnson is the more polished foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is less charismatic but arguably more experienced for the top job.

Britons will know who their next prime minister is on July 22, but even Tory devotees are irritated by the process.

One high-profile critic of British democratic procedures emerged last week: Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Putin at one point all but taunted his interviewer with the fact that a small slice of activists from a single party was effectively choosing the next leader of the United Kingdom.

“In your country,” Mr. Putin told his British interviewer, “one leader has left, and the second leader, who is for all intents and purposes the top figure in the state, is not elected by a direct vote of the people, but by the ruling party.”

“It is different in Russia,” Mr. Putin teased, “as we are a democratic country.”

Despite Mr. Johnson’s checkered record, Mr. Holden is backing him to be prime minister — not necessarily because he thinks Mr. Johnson is the better man to deliver Brexit but because he already has his eye on the next general election, which has to be before 2022.

“A lot of the Tory membership is terrified of the increasingly confident opposition Labor Party, which they see as hard-left and consumed by borrowing and spending. Not to mention that, it’s also anti-American and anti-NATO,” said Mr. Holden. “Boris is the one who could actually win the general election against them.”

The fear is understandable. Voters soundly rejected the Tories during the European elections in May. Pro-Brexit voters deserted the party en masse for nationalist — and Trump ally — Nigel Farage’s brand-new Brexit Party.

“We’ve been bullied by the EU and its unelected civil servants,” Mr. Holden said.

Tim Oliver, a political analyst at Loughborough University London, predicts there are enough Conservative Party members like Mr. Holden to ensure a victory for Mr. Johnson. “He is a great entertainer, and given the state of the Tory party, it’s easy to see why they want a boost. Jeremy Hunt is sound but dull.”

Even those who don’t like Mr. Johnson are bracing themselves for his win. “They say bad things come in threes. First, we had Brexit, then Trump, and now we’ll have Boris,” said Niall Mason, a 40-year-old investment manager from London who voted to remain in the EU.

Still, conservatives say they want a leader with some personality after the dogged but low-wattage Mrs. May.

“The membership is looking for a cross between a Churchill and a Thatcher. They want someone who is charismatic and strong,” said Mr. Holden. “Mr. Hunt is more reserved, but he also has another enormous problem: He voted to remain in the EU. That’s a big problem among the membership of the party.”

The Churchillian reference is exactly what Mr. Johnson is desperate to achieve, Mr. Oliver said.

Johnson yearns to be like Churchill, even claiming recently that he paints, which is a pastime the great wartime prime minister also loved,” said Mr. Oliver. “But while Churchill painted some decent landscapes, Boris Johnson claims to paint wine crates red so they resemble London’s iconic double-decker buses. That neatly captures the vast gap between the two.”

Mr. Hunt, who opposed Brexit in the momentous 2016 referendum, made his most extensive case for his candidacy Monday by telling voters he was the better choice to oversee the departure from the EU — with or without a deal.

Mr. Hunt vowed to dip into government reserves to help farmers, marine interests and small businesses likely to be rocked by an abrupt end to open trade with the Continent.

“It is important that the EU knows that we will do what it takes to make a success of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit,” Mr. Hunt said in a speech on Monday, according to The Associated Press. “We won’t blink as a country. That ‘no-deal’ Brexit is not going to be an opportunity for them to successfully turn the screws on our country.”

Whoever wins the keys to No. 10 Downing St., the prime ministerial residence, he is going to face a near-impossible task of getting the U.K. out of the European Union by Oct. 31 with a workable deal for future relations, Mr. Oliver said.

Both leadership contenders have promised to get a better divorce settlement from the EU, but observers say Brussels is unlikely to budge and is under little pressure to be generous.

The end of October is the newly extended deadline for a Brexit deal. So far, the British Parliament has flatly refused to endorse the negotiated deal that Mrs. May repeatedly offered before resigning. She argued it was the best deal London would ever get.

If no new agreement is reached by Oct. 31, then the U.K. will leave the trading bloc without any deal on future arrangements.

Mr. Johnson has indicated that he is prepared to do exactly that. For him, Halloween is a hard deadline. Mr. Hunt, however, has said he would request a further extension if it looks like a better deal is within reach.

“The time frame to renegotiate is simply not there. Mr. Johnson is playing to the base who want to be told Britain can do what it wants,” said Mr. Oliver. “He could get a no-deal [Brexit] through Parliament, although it will cause outrage.”

But Mr. Holden isn’t so sure. “Don’t underestimate Boris. He may seem a happy-go-lucky type, but he’s a calculating little bugger at heart.”

Meanwhile, Brexit goes on and Brexit fatigue is growing.

“People are Brexhausted, and they’re going to get even more so as Brexit will keep going on,” Mr. Oliver said.

Voters like Mr. Mason say it’s enough now. “I just want them to get on with it,” he said.

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