THE next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, should build a national Government to find a compromise solution to the Brexit deadlock, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, has said.
Mr Johnson was announced as the winner of the Conservative leadership election on Tuesday morning. He beat Jeremy Hunt in a ballot of party members by 92,153 votes to 46,656. Mr Johnson is due to be called to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, to be asked to form a government.
His leadership campaign centred on a “do-or-die” pledge to pull Britain out of the European Union, with or without a deal, by 31 October.
Bishop Cottrell said on Monday: “The decision to leave the European Union was never in my estimation an expression of the overwhelming will of the people, but a narrow victory by one side over another. The nation was split down the middle in 2016. It is split down the middle today. . .
“I believe that Mr Johnson . . . should focus on a cross-party way of working to achieve the very best outcome for this, the greatest peacetime challenge of our national life in living memory. This might also begin to bring the country back together.”
He went on, however: “I don’t think he will achieve it, because hitherto I have seen no sign that he has any desire to even unite his own party, let alone Parliament. But I believe in the unexpected vicissitudes of grace, and would be delighted to be proved wrong.”
The Church Times asked politicians, bishops, priests, and activists what they thought the new Prime Minister should try to achieve by 31 October, exactly 100 days from when he was elected to lead his party.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that Mr Johnson’s priority should be “honesty about the realities of government and the costs of doing what he promises”. But he said that he did not expect that this would happen.
Sir Gary Streeter, a Conservative MP and chair of Christians in Parliament — who did not support Mr Johnson in the leadership campaign — said that Mr Johnson “must focus on Brexit”. He risked imperilling trust in democracy if he did not manage to deliver an exit by 31 October, Sir Gary said.
Mr Johnson had a good chance of achieving this, Sir Gary said, although he also said that his fingers were crossed.
The Team Rector of Boston, in Lincolnshire, the Revd Aly Buxton, whose parish recorded the highest Leave vote in the 2016 referendum, said that that result should be respected, and the UK should leave the EU. She hoped, however, that “the lives of the people of the nation can come first”.
She went on: “I minister in a town where morale is low, along with great feelings of uncertainty about the future. Empty shops, low pay, and lack of facilities — with a large percentage of people not knowing if they are to stay or go, how this will happen, and in what time scale. Dear Mr Johnson, in all your decision making, please put the needs of the people of the UK first.”
By contrast, the Priest-in-Charge of the Anglican chaplaincy in the Costa del Sol in Spain, the Revd Adrian Low, said that Mr Johnson should instead abandon Brexit altogether. Leaving was no longer the will of the people, he said: since the referendum, many Leave voters had died, younger Remainers had turned 18, and some who voted Leave had changed their minds.
“Having been appointed, he needs to dump the leadership campaign rhetoric and do the will of the people — through a second referendum,” Mr Low said. But this time, he said, there must be no lies about how leaving the EU would bring £350 million into the NHS, or remarks about bendy bananas.
How confident was he this would happen? “I will publicly eat my collar if he does!”
Adrian Hilton, a Conservative academic and activist, who runs the Archbishop Cranmer blog, said that there was plenty to be getting on with beyond Brexit, including education funding, end-of-life social care, and the escalating crisis with Iran.
But unlike some others, he did believe that Mr Johnson would rise to this demanding challenge, despite his “personal foibles, character flaws, and political idiosyncrasies galore”.
He continued: “Sometimes it takes a social eccentric and political maverick to do what needs to be done.”
The Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, in central London, the Revd Marcus Walker, a member of the Conservative Party, said that he had been torn over how to vote. The priority for Mr Johnson, he said, should be not Brexit, or anything else, but establishing a stable majority for his government in parliament.
“At the moment, all government is paralysed, and nothing, including but not limited to Brexit, can be done.”