23 Sep 2016

Boris, Jim and Theresa

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 20: Boris Johnson, British politician and former mayor of London, attends the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2016 in New York City. According to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, the most pressing matter to be discussed at the General Assembly is the world's refugee crisis. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Theresa May’s flight to New York one official on her team joked he’d issued instructions that Boris Johnson was to be “rugby tackled” if he looked like he was leaving their section of the plane to mingle with the media.

About 30 minutes later, the Foreign Secretary appeared to be doing just that. The curtain twitched at the front of the plane, out came the faux bewildered face, a red file in one hand, a thumbs up to an FCO official and then a glance at the media seats further back. He’d got about two rows down the enemy section of the aircraft when the other curtain twitched and out popped two senior No. 10 officials. One of them explained to him that the PM would be doing a briefing soon (it happened 40 minutes later), better not to get in the way etc.

Boris was packed off back behind the curtain and not seen for the rest of the flight,.

Until the previous week, Theresa May had thought she might be staying in New York for a Security Council meeting at government leader level. That became a Foreign Secretary level meeting on Syria and she departed, leaving Boris Johnson to make hay.

Mr Johnson’s the second person to show a bit more candour than No. 10 about the January/February target for Article 50 (Donald Tusk did the same at the end of last week). As I mentioned in this blog on 31st August, Theresa May feels she’s given “commitments to EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, that the process will start early in 2017 … she feels very strongly she wouldn’t want to break that commitment and that she does not regard March as ‘early next year’. If her plans run to schedule the formal application to leave, triggering two-year, time-limited negotiations, would come in January 2017 or February at the latest”.

While Boris Johnson has been wandering off message, Lord (Jim) O’Neill has walked off the reservation. The former City man, the originator of “Brics” and other acronyms, the man brought in to improve relations with China and boost the Northern Powerhouse, seems to have decided that Theresa May isn’t sufficiently convinced of either project.

His resignation letter is couched in polite terms but the careful wording leaves little to doubt. He is said to have been astonished that Theresa May was cool on the Northern Powerhouse, staggered at the cavalier treatment of fragile relations with China, baffled by the tight circle of advisers around Theresa May, a set-up widely criticised in government.

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