New leader in waiting?
Far from being a loose cannon, Boris Johnson’s every move is well thought out, writes Eddie Ford
Making his ambitions clear, Boris Johnson hit the headlines yet again over the weekend with a full-scale assault on Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. Writing for the Mail on Sunday, the former foreign secretary declared that the prime minister had “wrapped a suicide vest” around the British constitution and “handed the detonator” to Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator.
At every stage of the talks, continued Johnson, “Brussels gets what Brussels wants” - for instance, the British government accepted the EU’s timetable and agreed to hand over £39 billion “for nothing in return”. The EU is “bullying” the UK, yet so far the response from the Theresa May team has been “utterly feeble”. Rather than getting a “generous free trade deal”, complained Johnson, “Britain is saying, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir’” to Brussels. This is a “humiliation”, Johnson wrote, that makes Britain “look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500lb gorilla”.
For him, the main explanation for the government’s behaviour is the “insanity” of the backstop agreement last December, by which Northern Ireland remains in “full regulatory alignment” with the EU in case no agreement is reached by the deadline - thus in theory avoiding the need for a hard border in the statelet. This is “completely unacceptable”, fulminated Johnson, as it would mean a border down the Irish Sea and gives Barnier a “jemmy with which Brussels can choose at any time to crack apart the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Theresa May herself had said this was unacceptable, but she is allowing Brussels to push her around. And now, Johnson stated, the British government is trying to come up with a solution that is “even more pathetic” - proposing its “own version” of the backstop, which sees “the whole of the UK” remaining inside the customs union and single market. In that way, the “great British Brexit” has been reduced to “two appalling options”: either divide the union or accept EU law forever. Johnson ends his article with a rallying cry to “scrap the backstop”, “fix the borders for frictionless trade” and “get back to the open and dynamic approach” outlined in May’s original Lancaster House speech - meaning a “big, Canada-style free trade deal”.
Of course, this latest salvo against the prime minister follows on from his September 3 Daily Telegraph column in which he said that the Chequers deal “means disaster” for Britain and “victory” for the EU. Merrily mixing his metaphors as usual, Johnson wrote that “the whole thing is about as preordained as a bout between Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy” - the UK is going “into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank”. Johnson claimed that the UK has agreed to hand over billions of taxpayers’ money “for two-thirds of diddly squat”. As for the Northern Ireland border, the British government has been “rumbled” - it is using this as an excuse to “stop a proper Brexit”. Instead, Johnson believes that a hard border would not be needed after Brexit, as there would be a common travel area.
Further fuelling speculation about his ambitions, Johnson’s latest Telegraph column argues that the UK should follow Donald Trump’s example and slash taxes to create a “happy and dynamic economy” - he also attacked the HS2 high-speed rail project on the grounds that its total cost could rise to £100 billion or more (which might well be the case, it has to be said). Supporters of Boris Johnson say he will continue to “throw rocks” at Theresa May’s Chequers plan in the weeks running up to the Tory conference, but apparently has no plans for an immediate leadership bid.
Telling you all you need to know, Johnson is now being advised by the master of darkness himself, Sir Lynton Crosby - the so-called election guru who helped the Tories win the 2015 general election and ran two successful London mayoral campaigns for Johnson. We discover in The Sunday Times that Crosby has sent David Canzini - a senior member of his “polling and market research firm”, CTF Partners - to work with the European Research Group headed by the Brexit ultra and all-round reactionary weirdo, Jacob Rees-Mogg. CTF Partners gained a certain notoriety in 2010 by advising private healthcare providers on how to exploit perceived “failings” in the national health service, and Crosby issued The Guardian with a legal challenge over its reporting.
Anyway, Canzini is partnering Steve Baker, ex-Brexit minister and a key organiser in the Vote Leave campaign during the referendum. Baker caused a stir on September 10 by telling the BBC that the Tory Party faces a “catastrophic split” if May relied on Labour votes to push her Chequers proposals through parliament. Baker claims that “at least” 80 Conservative MPs would be willing to vote against the plan, including some of his colleagues, who backed remaining in the referendum, but would prefer the UK to leave without a deal rather than sign up to the current proposal to maintain a “common rulebook” with the EU.
In other words, think back to Boris Johnson’s now almost legendary burqa article in The Sunday Telegraph about letterboxes and bank robbers (August 5). These were not just witticisms conjured up by Johnson alone in his book-lined study, but rather a very clever move prepared in advance after consulting Crosby and other advisors and confidantes. It positioned him as leader of the Tory Party right, or the anti-Chequers party - but at the same time as a liberal with a sense of humour (What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?). On the other hand, all the bigots who really want to ban the burqa now regard Boris Johnson as their champion - making the original article a smart manoeuvre to secure a wide base of support both within the Tory Party and wider society.
Then take the news of his divorce from Marina Wheeler, his wife for 25 years - they issued a joint statement after a story appeared in The Sun detailing allegations of infidelity on the part of Johnson. Issued via a family friend, the statement said the pair had decided several months ago that “it was in our best interests to separate” - but “as friends we will continue to support our four children in the years ahead”. As was widely noted in the media, this statement had little to do with the ending of their marriage, but everything to do with Johnson’s preparations for a leadership bid.
Of course, predictably, the other side of the Tory Party - the Downing Street wing - is now attempting a rather unsavoury smear campaign against Johnson, circulating in Westminster a dodgy dossier about Johnson’s personal life, which was first created in 2016 by a member of May’s leadership campaign team. The Johnson camp believes, not unreasonably, that No10 and Tory Party HQ are planning to “build on it” over the next period. An angry Andrew Bridgen, the Eurosceptic Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, protested that they “have released their attack poodles” - the dossier is “Project Smear Boris”. Since most of the stuff “has been out there for a very long time”, you “have to ask yourself: why now, and in whose interests would it be?” Naturally enough, No10 has strenuously denied having anything to do with the dossier now being recirculated in parliament. An unnamed senior aide told The Sunday Times: “It is genuinely offensive and categorically untrue that we have done anything to update this document” (my emphasis). From which you can only conclude that the May wing may indeed have had something to do with the original version.
But such tactics do not have the shock value they might have had 50 to 60 years ago. Boris Johnson is not entirely faithful to his wife and is going out with a younger woman - so what? Look at Donald Trump, who is backed enthusiastically by Christian evangelicals: they do not seem remotely concerned about his pussy-grabbing and so on. The straightforward reality, as the former foreign secretary well knows, is that people are going to back Boris Johnson because he has a rightwing agenda and wants to get Britain out of the EU - and they could not care less about who he might be having sex with.
Going back to our original point, the fact that Johnson is being advised by Lynton Crosby means that every move is well thought out - Johnson is not just a loose cannon firing out in all directions, as is sometimes suggested. However, he has a big obstacle to overcome. According to Conservative Party rules, a leadership contest can only be triggered either if the leader resigns or if 15% of Tory MPs (currently 48) write to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, demanding a vote of no confidence. Following a successful vote, the MPs whittle down the contestants to a shortlist of two, with the membership then getting to decide who becomes the new leader.
But Theresa May only needs a simple majority to see off a leadership challenge and Downing Street is confident rebel Tories do not have the numbers to topple her. If she defeats a no-confidence vote, the prime minister cannot be challenged again for another 12 months - timing is everything. There is no doubt that Johnson is very popular amongst the membership, but, when it comes to MPs …?
The calculation must be to build up a head of steam, so that local constituencies start lobbying their MPs demanding that Boris Johnson must be on the ballot paper. After all, that strategy worked for Jeremy Corbyn - the left knew that the arithmetic amongst the PLP just did not add up, so pile on the pressure in the CLPs. Hence “the morons” - those MPs who thought it was a good idea to allow a leftwing candidate to be included on the ballot. Of course, they never thought in their worst nightmare that Jeremy Corbyn would actually win - thankfully, they were extremely naive. The same sort of approach goes for Boris Johnson, who obviously needs the backing of the rightwing press, but also the local constituencies and membership - activated and demanding that he gets the chance to run.