LONDON — No one polarizes opinion over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union quite like Boris Johnson, the flamboyant foreign secretary, who in 2016 helped persuade Britons to quit a bloc that he once accused of trying to unify the continent just as Napoleon and Hitler tried to do.
So why, exactly, would Johnson try to woo the large minority who voted to remain?
In a speech Wednesday, Johnson called on his opponents to unite around his vision of British withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, while warning that any rethink of the decision itself would be a “disastrous mistake.”
A second vote would bring “another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose,” he argued in a speech that skirted around the tough economic questions about withdrawal that have split a bitterly divided British Cabinet.
Brexit, Johnson insisted, meant an “outward-looking liberal global future,” and was not “some un-British spasm of bad manners” or a “great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover.”
Many remainers see it as exactly such a gesture — a blend of nationalism and nostalgia — and analysts rated his prospects of winning them over as close to zero.
“The idea that he has traction with remain voters is absurd,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “so it has to be about something else, and that has to be about keeping himself in the public eye.”
It would not be the first time. Last year he caused a stir before the Conservative Party’s annual conference by publishing a lengthy essay on his Brexit vision.
More recently, he made headlines with calls for higher health spending, perhaps seeking to justify his widely debunked claim that quitting the European Union would free up around $500 million a week for the National Health Service.
Years ago, Johnson famously dismissed his prospects of becoming prime minister as being “about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or me being reincarnated as an olive.”
But Johnson may be sensing another moment of opportunity as May struggles to control her Cabinet amid calls from some of her own lawmakers for her to step aside.
Brexit has caught her in an unforgiving political vice.
A “soft” departure, protecting business by retaining close economic ties to the bloc, is being opposed by Brexit enthusiasts in the Cabinet, including Johnson.
But a “hard Brexit,” or clean break, of the type such right-wing and Brexit supporters favor, could be rejected by Parliament, plunging May’s government into a terminal crisis.
That conundrum has paralyzed decision-making in London, leaving May looking weak, unable to tell EU negotiators (or the British public) what future relationship she wants with the bloc.