16 Sep 2017

What is Boris up to?

Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article is clearly the speech he had hoped to give about now but was told by a No 10 emissary he should not.

Instead he has burst on to the scene in print, albeit unhelpfully behind a paywall and on a day when the threat level has been raised and eyes are largely elsewhere.

What is he up to?

Boris Johnson wants to re-establish his credentials as the godfather of Brexit, the man whose weight and campaigning presence helped to tip the balance in the referendum: the big beast who could keep Nigel Farage off the centre stage in that campaign and diminish the weight of the political establishment standing on the other side of the argument.

He wants to re-establish those credentials because he wants to be leader of his party and Prime Minister.

As Charles Moore writes elsewhere in The Telegraph, Boris Johnson was slow out of the traps in the referendum itself. He doesn’t want to repeat the mistake.

And Mr Johnson believes that the implementation of Brexit should probably be done by someone who enthusiastically believes in it and is ready to articulate that optimism.

There will be quite a few people who agree with that.

Constitutional referenda can trigger new assemblies or parliaments who implement their programmes when duly elected. A national policy referendum like the one on the EU can land you with the bizarre situation in which the people at the head of the country who must implement the policy are people who fought it and, deep down, worry themselves sick about its implications.

Better, Mr Johnson and his allies would think, to have someone who can write the sort of piece he did today, exalting the opportunities of Brexit rather than sounding like the whole anxious, tense exercise is like crossing a minefield. Mr Johnson suggests at one point in the piece that Britain is “the second greatest power on earth after America” and there’s a lot more in the article where that came from.

Boris Johnson’s critics will see all this in a different light.

They will say he is recklessly ignoring the delicacies of the negotiation: the lack of planning that means transition is needed and the immovability of the EU on the €40/50b hole in the remaining budget that needs filling.

They will also say that Boris Johnson knows Mrs May and Mr Hammond are not about to adopt as their own the Vote Leave pledge to reassign to public services the £350m per week which he said was the cost of the EU to the UK. That’s £18b plus a year. Mr Johnson has been lobbying in private for the government to take over that pledge . Allies say Mr Johnson says he will re-pledge that money all over again if he runs for the leadership.

Mr Johnson has also lamented in private that the post-Brexit focus on immigration obscures the positive case for leaving the EU and risks painting him, as one of the most prominent Leave supporters, as some latter day Enoch Powell.

Immigration, notably, barely features in the lengthy Telegraph piece that reads like it has been some time in the planning and not, as can be the case with this author, written the night before.

So there is a strong sense of ‘this is my moment’
about this article.

You can’t help thinking different personnel management might have headed it off. Theresa May knows what it is like to be patronised at meetings in front of senior colleagues. David Laws’ diaries, in today’s Times, recall some incidents of that. But she has probably unnecessarily inflicted something similar on Boris Johnson since she came to No 10.

One former attendee at National Security Council meetings recalls former No 10 joint chief of staff Fiona Hill heckling Boris Johnson through an NCS meeting and the PM doing nothing to intervene. Mrs May closed the meeting saying the new line (on carry-on laptops) should be followed in public by everyone and that includes you, Boris.

You hear of other moments when the PM rubbed up this fragile, giant ego the wrong way. And that’s without totting up the public put-downs. The characters and differences are very different, but listening to these accounts there are echoes of the way Margaret Thatcher’s personal treatment of Geoffrey Howe compounded a political problem and tipped him into walking out.

It’s unlikely Mrs May will feel strong enough to sack Boris Johnson or demote him though some at the top of government would dearly like to see her give it a try. The schedule suggests they might bump into each other at the United Nations in New York next week. Maybe some blue berets could be on hand for that?

At the heart of the Foreign Secretary’s article is a gossamer veiled attack on the strategy which the Chancellor and other senior ministers have convinced the PM is necessary: a status quo transition. That was what Mrs May was hoping to signal in her speech in Florence on Friday next week.

Mr Johnson has put down a marker that he might well use that critique as the starting point for a challenge to her leadership. He has reminded fans of his gung-ho, optimistic tone and of what Brexit led by a Brexiteer might sound like.

But will it shift the axis formed between David Davis and Philip Hammond in favour of a status quo transition? Or will it harden it? Will it galvanise other Brexiteers to move for a faster, cleaner break with the EU?

How much is this timing dictated by cool strategic thinking and how much by the hurt of being side-tracked and the sense of a ticking clock as attention turns to a new generation of potential leaders?

Charles Moore says in The Telegraph we are living through a “very strange passage in our island history,” and you can’t argue with that. Matthew Parris in The Times writes: “the political undergrowth is tinder-dry,” and I suspect that’s on the money as well.

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