18 Jul 2018

Boris Johnson resignation statement

The government was careful, as Boris Johnson knew it would be, to create a buffer zone of statements between the Prime Minister sitting down at the end of PMQs and Boris Johnson getting to his feet to rubbish her Brexit strategy in his resignation speech.

He accused Theresa May of leading a “stealthy retreat” to “a miserable, permanent limbo.” He accused her of underestimating public intelligence and of “volunteering for economic vassalage.” Well, he accused the Chequers plan of doing that. Where Geoffrey Howe’s famous speech attacked Margaret Thatcher herself and her leadership (with Mrs Thatcher stuck on the front bench having to listen to it in person),  Mr Johnson was careful to keep his attacks away from the personal as the Prime Minister herself was settling down to questions in a committee room on the other side of Parliament.

Her absence greatly lowered the tension of the moment but Boris Johnson never reached for the rhetorical or delivery stars. There would’ve been a danger in looking ridiculous doing that if you are not actually using this moment to strike.

One pro-Leave former Cabinet minister said it was “workmanlike.” One passionate backbench supporter had been hoping for something more: “Not as soaring or scathing as I’d hoped,” the MP said. There were no jokes (“we got them out in the third draft,” one MP said). A pack of pro-Brexit MPs had filtered back into the chamber after intervening statements to sit around the former Foreign Secretary  in a choreographed show of strength. Behind the government frontbench, sat his Tory critics, unimpressed, one MP could be seen mouthing the word “rubbish.” At the end another said: “Is that it?”

This was not a game-changer moment but Mr Johnson’s faction feels it is running the show at the moment and has the leadership and the Chequers strategy on the run. Mrs May, after all, caved in to their demands on Monday only to face down the Remain rebels’ demand on Tuesday.

Opting for different tactics, the former Brexit Secretary David Davis asked the Prime Minister a pointed question at Question Time about whether she would publish his old department’s work examining previous EU trade treaties, an exercise which it seems he had hoped would provide the template for a free trade agreement, ready to sign, if other government efforts at agreement fall, as he expects, flat on their face.

Theresa May was careful not to commit to publishing the document which is thought to run to around 40 pages in its current form. Lawyers and trade experts are supposed to be working through the summer to flesh it out and turn it into a legal text for a precedent-based EU Treaty. The idea would be that it would be ready to come off the shelf when Chequers fails, a document the EU27 could or should readily engage with given that it is based on deals already struck with other countries.

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