The strangest thing about the turmoil surrounding UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's removal is the sustained lack of interest in Britain's biggest and most pressing problem. Johnson bungled Brexit, and the country could be paying the price for years.
His trade agreement with the European Union is broken and in danger of collapsing – threatening severe consequences for an economy already reeling from high inflation and slowing growth. Yet one too many petty scandals, not Brexit mismanagement, is what brought him down. As the competition to succeed him plays out, Britain's future relations with Europe barely rate a mention.
Johnson says the Tories were elected in 2019 to "get Brexit done." (The prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn had something to do with it too.) He says he duly delivered. But now he calls the deal he struck unsustainable because of its most conspicuous feature: an economic border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. This protocol has destabilized the province's fragile politics, and Johnson has threatened to scrap it unilaterally, leading to almost certain retaliation from the EU.
In short, Brexit is on track to go from bad to worse.
Yet the candidates to replace Johnson are mostly arguing about taxes and spending, experience and leadership, competence and integrity – aiming to position themselves as effective modern conservatives as though Brexit was done and dusted. The front-runners, Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, both agree the protocol needs attention, but like the rest of the field they've been vague about how to mend it. The Labour opposition (now led by the more electable Keir Starmer) is happy to play along. Labour has no more clue than the Tories about how to solve Britain's Brexit problems. Both parties, internally divided between Leave and Remain, think it more politically productive to squabble with each other about almost anything else.
It's understandable, and not just because of the internal splits. Britain's Brexit options are limited and unappealing. Not even Leave's most ardent advocates would say things have gone well; Remainers celebrate Johnson's mismanagement (like every other post-Brexit development) as vindication. But almost nobody believes that the decision can be reversed, in full or in part, in the foreseeable future.
The idea that Britain might turn supplicant for renewed membership — presumably on terms that would be less favorable than those it secured through years of grudging and obstreperous participation — is unthinkable. It's almost as hard to imagine any kind of deal that would require a new treaty, with all the delays and complications this would involve. The EU doesn't want it, and the UK couldn't face it.
Still, a plan for making the best of a bad situation doesn't seem too much to ask of Britain's would-be leaders.
What might this look like? It would need to start by acknowledging — even if tacitly — Brexit's two great tactical errors. These have nothing to do with the pros and cons of Brexit in principle. Many of the criticisms that Brexit advocates made of the EU's overweening ambitions, half-baked fiscal arrangements, mercantilist instincts, anti-democratic institutions and ever-proliferating deadweight bureaucracy are correct. But Brexiteers refused to see that: First, as a former member, Britain would be negotiating with the EU from a position of weakness; second, and even more important, the EU would be pleased to watch Brexit fail, and fail conspicuously, to discourage other rebellions.
This is why Johnson's approach, all theater and provocation, has failed. Standing on what Britain supposedly needs and demands might have traction at home, but has none whatever with the EU. Britain's only hope is patient, cooperative, detail-oriented talks based on mutual advantage. Once points of contention are cast as non-negotiable matters of sovereignty — so that one side must win and other must lose — there's no doubt who the loser will be.
The Northern Ireland protocol can be repaired without tearing up the treaty. Crucially, Britain's next prime minister should accept responsibility, as Johnson couldn't bear to, for what's wrong with the current arrangements — and agree to remedy the defects with technical fixes on implementation as opposed to formal rewriting of the instrument. There's plenty of scope in the existing deal for making the economic border in the Irish Sea much less troublesome — in particular, by minimizing checks and other regulatory barriers affecting goods for final sale in the province.
The EU has already shown some flexibility, but it could and should go further. Doing so would be in its interests. Such accommodations pose minimal risks to the integrity of the EU's single market. Promoting political stability in Northern Ireland is very much in the interests of the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. And harmonious economic relations with the UK also serve the economic interests of the wider EU.
Britain needs a leader who can grapple in good faith with the details and make this case without issuing useless threats; who can sell the formula to the politicians in Northern Ireland that oppose any kind of friction in trade between the province and the mainland; and who can persuade voters in the rest of the country that mutual advantage is a vastly more promising approach than Britain versus Europe. Johnson was temperamentally incapable of playing this role. To prevent Brexit going even more badly wrong, Britain's next prime minister should give it a try.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics, finance and politics. A former chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, he has been an editor for the Economist and the Atlantic. @clive_crook
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.