Boris Johnson set to push for ‘liberal Brexit’
Boris Johnson allies say some in the Cabinet did come to his support during the exchanges on the NHS. But that’s not what it felt like in the room if you listen even to pro-Leave Cabinet members.
One Cabinet minister said that Michael Gove and Chris Grayling “didn’t row towards him, they rowed past. The rest of us just rammed his boat.”
The Prime Minister started the process off with remarks that included a brief lecture on how pre-briefing contributions is not the way to get business done in Cabinet. Other ministers, quite a few of them, then piled in speaking from the same script. Boris Johnson, according to one round the table, kept his composure but was clearly not happy. “It was not a pleasant thing to see,” one Cabinet member said.
When it came to Mr Johnson’s turn to speak he was late in the line-up, as Mrs May decided the order of who spoke. Some, like Liam Fox, kept their comments thinly veiled. Amber Rudd sounds like she may have been a little more obvious about who her remarks were directed at. Mr Johnson didn’t put a figure on what spending should be. Cabinet colleagues said the wind had gone out of his sails. One said: it was “not so much a call to arms more a whimper.”
Allies of Mr Johnson say he’s winning the argument because Mrs May acknowledged at the outset of the whole discussion that there should be more spending on priority areas including the NHS after Brexit. But she’s working to a different timetable. Mr Johnson wants a commitment now and the spending to start next year. He thinks more spending is inevitable and the government might as well get ahead of the curve and get itself associated with that spending rather than playing catch-up later and giving political space to Labour.
Mrs May’s team have fended off earlier pleas from Boris Johnson to dole out millions and Brexit-badge them. Some around her believe the Vote Leave pledge is toxic and she shouldn’t come near it. They think Boris Johnson is trying to get them to lift the albatross off his neck for his own political purposes and don’t see why they should oblige. Their logic runs that honouring campaign pledges you didn’t write or agree with is not the way to make value for money decisions on spending.
But this all comes at a moment when backbench attacks on Mrs May’s leadership having one of their regular spikes. The trigger this time was probably in large measure the reshuffle but also persistent rumours that Mrs May believes she should stay around in the Tory leadership a lot longer than March 2019.
Tory MPs mutter of a domestic legislative wilderness and a complete lack of ambition in a leadership without imagination, dare or drive. Some say they want to push Mrs May on not push her off her perch. Others seem up for the latter. One former minister told me “she is killing the Conservative Party. This can’t go on.” Many think that it will go on because the party splits the moment it doesn’t.
One ally of Boris Johnson insists he is in the “push” not “push off perch” category. But you’ll have a very hard time convincing some of his Cabinet colleagues of that Mr Johnson’s next sortie is said to be a speech on “liberal Brexit.” One source said he wants to celebrate “a beautiful moment of democracy” and rescue it from an image of “torrid nastiness.”