Boris’s cunning plan
Foreign secretary will never be good enough for Boris Johnson, reckons Paul Demarty - but the top job is hardly guaranteed
The silly season, it seems, has ended with a bang. And no sooner does British politics resume in earnest than the scheming in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party is restored to its customary pace and viciousness.
Boris Johnson is the plotter du jour, if that is not too lily-livered and continental a phrase for the blustering blonde Brexiteer, and he has chosen as his outlet The Daily Telegraph. Four thousand words tumbled forth from his pen in cod-Churchillian mode - scoffing at the risk of a ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit, refusing once more to countenance any ‘divorce bill’, and generally putting on the sort of show the petty bourgeois Tory right just love to see.
His ‘people’ have protested that this is all perfectly innocuous - merely a restatement of official government policy - and that the foreign minister backs Theresa May. There cannot be anyone alive stupid enough to swallow this line. May is about to deliver a speech in Florence, stressing the importance of obtaining a transitional deal with continuing access to the European market for some number of years. The divorce bill is to be reframed as the price of ensuring such access - nothing more British than a simple business transaction! - and a figure of £30 billion floated, about half of the opening offer from the European Union powers. None of this is likely to impress the true believers, but may reassure big business, and certainly has the fingerprints of chancellor Phillip Hammond all over it.
Boris, in stating the formal, pre-existing government policy, is flagrantly undermining a change in such policy, of which he cannot possibly be unaware, unless he is genuinely as thick as he sometimes wants to seem. The line to which he hews, remember, was cooked up in order to strike a sufficiently defiant note to make June 8 into a Hottentot election, and earn a thumping chauvinist victory for the Tories.
That scenario - to put it mildly - has not panned out terrifically well, and May is now restricted to such policies as she can steer through parliament. The Labour leadership has allowed itself to be bounced into a much clearer crypto-‘remain’ position over the summer by people like Kier Starmer - Labour abstentions cannot be relied upon by the government as they have often been before now. On the other hand, the Brexit-bonkers hard core are getting organised - witness the 40 or so MPs signing this notorious leaked letter explicitly refusing to countenance continued membership of the single market. The parliamentary mathematics is pretty sensitive to minor disruptions like the open rebellion of the foreign secretary.
On the face of it, Boris’s cunning plan has not panned out too well either. The irritation among his cabinet colleagues is clear - they signed up to collective responsibility, to propping up the government, and here is Boris, triumphantly off-message. Amber Rudd gently admonished him, from a BBC sofa, for “backseat driving” - it is Theresa May who is in charge of the vehicle, she said, not reassuring anyone. TheTimes of September 18 cited people close to Michael Gove denouncing the plot, although who knows what side he is on? He was spotted on holiday in Bayreuth with a certain Gideon Osborne, taking in some Teutonic opera.
In the pantheon of Wagnerian villains, we see Gove as a sort of Klingsor, a magician and satanic tempter, whereas Osborne is an Alberich, driven mad by his avaricious pursuit of wealth; mad indeed is his reported line to Evening Standard staffers that he will not be happy until Theresa May is “chopped up in bags in my freezer”. On the face of it, Boris does not fit into the mould of truly tragic villainy, appearing instead as a sort of jumped-up buffoon (Beckmesser from Die Meistersinger, perhaps?). But he is smarter than he looks, and so cannot have expected to immediately offload May as PM. So what does he expect?
The context is, of course, that May is in an incredibly weak position. We have mentioned the arithmetical difficulties she faces in the Commons, but that is merely the most debilitating symptom of a grievous cause. May took hold of a fragile, small parliamentary majority, eyed up the prize of a landslide election victory against a fractious official opposition, but obtained for herself a minority government propped up by a cabal of grasping, swivel-eyed Orangemen. Her authority is shot and, though the success achieved by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum in working around the defeatist party apparatus was important in the election result, so were the disastrous errors of May and her botched ‘presidential’ campaign.
May is clearly a strong fighter in internal Tory politics - by such means did she stitch up the leadership amid the post-referendum chaos in the first place; and indeed cling on when the world demanded her head after June 8. She only managed the latter, however, by making deals, and surrendering authority to the people she needed to prop her up. Hammond reportedly demanded a Brexit policy that ‘put jobs first’, and we all know what sort of Brexit policy he means by that. Yet she also needed Boris, to guard her right flank. Given the clear divide opening up between the Tories’ bourgeois benefactors and petty bourgeois electoral base on the question of Europe, it is hardly surprising that the parliamentary party has significant factional divisions. With a big majority, that could be managed by the whips’ office; without one, the divisions are hardwired into a restive cabinet.
The upshot of all this is that, as I write, Johnson is still in charge of King Charles Street. It is difficult to imagine any government since that of Jim Callaghan tolerating such open insubordination; even Liberal Democrat members of the 2010 coalition would, surely, be easy enough for David Cameron to get rid of, even if he had to ask Nick Clegg nicely. May is trying to laugh it off - “Boris is Boris”, she says, and ridicules (as has the office for national statistics) the utterly false claim, bizarrely reheated by Boris in his Telegraph piece, that Britain will be £350 million a week better off after Brexit. It does not matter. All that matters is that she cannot sack him. Paradoxically, the more she disciplines him without sacking him, the more obvious it becomes that the clearest and most reasonable remedy for such insubordination is denied her.
We may even concede, with Times columnist Oliver Wright, that “Mrs May doesn’t want to sack Mr Johnson at the moment, even if she could”, because
His performance as foreign secretary a little over a year into the job has hardly been inspiring and that in a way is the point. High office has weirdly diminished Mr Johnson and the political threat he poses. The danger is if he returns to what he is best at - campaigning without having to make the kind of compromising that being in government inherently involves.1
Such subtle calculations are grist to the mill of combatants in the Tory fray, and to learned pundits like Mr Wright; the cost of allowing Johnson to expose his inadequacy as a frontline politician is, at the very least, appearing weak.
It is, of course, possibly more severe even than that; for the lack of a properly prime-ministerial or presidential appearance seems to be no disadvantage in the current situation with electors quite tired of political ‘professionalism’, and the dishonest cynicism that attends to its every step. The meaning of Johnson’s insubordination is that he is willing to sacrifice the foreign office if it will get him into Number 10.
There is a whole other section of the bourgeoisie implicated here, of course, which is its non-British members. The attitude of the EU powers in this whole process has been one of bloody intransigence - we suppose that such people are tired of trouble at the outer border of their bloc, what with the insolence of the Greeks and so on; but none have been more disruptive than the British, who have frustrated at every turn the closer integration that alone would allow Europe to challenge for global hegemony. We wonder often these days what they say amongst themselves - there are no end of public statements tutting at British childishness, but what are the calculations behind them?
Such things will only become truly clear in retrospect, but it seems at the very least that Brexit presents the European Union with an historic opportunity to discard its most debilitating fetter, the ‘enemy agent’ across the Channel. There is a limited analogy that places Britain as a sort of Confederacy, albeit without the clear moral line that divided the defenders and the overthrowers of chattel slavery in the 1860s; in the wake of that overthrow, America emerged as a nation capable of competing for global hegemony, the war itself opening the way to protectionism and a modern financial system, among countless other dizzying lurches into high capitalism. The Brits may be suffered to continue as a trading partner of some sort, or even - with appropriate demonstration of contrition - as a member-state of the EU; but gone forever will be its special vetoes and exemptions.
The disunity in the upper ranks of the Tories is an inconvenience from this point of view, merely because it introduces uncertainty, a distinct element of chaos, into proceedings: it dangerously mixes the class interests of the bourgeoisie with the personal interests of its squabbling hirelings. The appeal of ‘strong and stable’ leadership to the ruling class is ultimately a matter of such a leader being both amenable to the interests of his or her own class and able to deliver on them. Since we cannot accuse the government of any such crime, the situation remains delicate.
1. The Times September 19.