Boris Johnson: Blond Ambition – an introduction by Gary Gibbon
A film about Boris Johnson’s last year or so in office, Blond Ambition, is on Channel 4 on Sunday night at 10pm. It’s the product of some brilliant and dogged work by Lottie Gammon, chasing down Boris Johnson when he didn’t particularly want our cameras on his case. Do watch it if you get the chance. Below is a piece I’ve written for the I Newspaper to coincide with transmission.
Some months before the general election, Boris Johnson returned to the Foreign Office after a meeting with Theresa May, flanked by her powerful joint Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. It was clear to him who was in control and it wasn’t the Prime Minister. “That’s modern slavery right there,” he told a colleague.
More recently he’s told allies that the disastrous general election result has left the Prime Minister a shell of her former self. Her mighty aides have been dispatched and the failed snap election hangs over every meeting. Her body language, he has told allies, is shrunken.
And now the Foreign Secretary she used to put down in public with caustic one liners is restless.
As the Conservatives prepare for their Conference in Manchester, one government source says Number 10 has Boris Johnson on “suicide watch.” They know he’s talked to allies about resignation in recent weeks and they’re not sure the moment of maximum danger has passed.
Officials at the Foreign Office say Johnson has thrown himself into his international trips, reading voraciously about wherever he is flying off to visit. But he knows the big political game is happening in London and Brussels and this September his frustrations boiled over.
Johnson exploded into print two weeks ago in an article in The Telegraph proclaiming the virtues of full-blown, full fat Brexit. Over the Summer he’d felt that Remainers in government, led by the Treasury, were leaning on Theresa May to adopt a position that would mean the UK accepting EU laws and regulations forever. “Switzerland” was the template No. 10 was whispering about and to the man who was the public face of the Vote Leave campaign, this was heresy.
There were other gripes too. Johnson wanted the Prime Minister to own the Vote Leave policies that helped to win the 2016 referendum. He wanted her to start honouring what he’d promised on the side of the Vote Leave bus: £350m for the NHS. He worried that the Brexit brand was looking battered and unloved.
And then there is the matter of his ambition.
Some 12 years ago, Johnson watched David Cameron jump ahead of him in the political stakes. He then had to endure watching Theresa May leapfrog him in the 2015 leadership contest, after his own bid for the top job collapsed into a concession speech.
More recently, Johnson has told friends that the party’s eyes are already turning to a new generation of MPs. Anecdotally, you sense he’s right on that. Several Tory MPs have told me that they’ve been told by their associations it’s time to look for a fresh face. One MP said of grassroots opinion: they think “the whole Cabinet is tainted by the election.” Another MP said: “They’re always asking me for new names.”
Those close to Boris Johnson say he thinks he probably has one more go at the top job in him and then it’s really over. Friends also report that he doesn’t subscribe to the view that Theresa May will last all the way to March 2019, the date of Brexit. “He thinks she got a year at most,” one said.
Johnson’s inflammatory article in The Telegraph was cleverly worded so No. 10 couldn’t easily nail him for a specific policy heresy. Some in government saw it as nothing other than the Foreign Secretary daring the PM to sack him.
But Mrs May was no longer the figure she was. All she felt able to say to journalists a few days later was that she was still driving policy and “Boris is Boris.” The episode threw a cruel light on her diminished power over ministers. At one National Security Council meeting some time before the election, one of her Joint Chiefs of Staff had criticised Johnson’s contribution to the meeting. The Prime Minister, closing the meeting said the policy line was clear and everyone, including Johnson, must follow it. There were echoes of the ritual humiliations Margaret Thatcher meted out to Geoffrey Howe. Another emissary had to be dispatched from Number 10 last year when there was panic that the Foreign Secretary was about to resign following a hostile briefing from Number 10 over remarks he’d made about Saudi Arabia.
After that episode, No. 10 pursued what one former aide called “an ego stroking strategy.” It included Mrs May making a point of pulling Johnson aside after Cabinet as other ministers left the room to make him look like he was part of a trusted inner circle. It looks like both the stroking and slapdown approaches are done with. Theresa May probably doesn’t have the strength to scold him or the power to flatter him. Their relationship is moving into new, unknown terrain just as politics, this conference season, does the same.
Blond Ambition airs on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.