As the Tory party conference began in Manchester last Sunday Theresa May received the second reminder in a fortnight that she is weak and her time as leader could be coming to an end. When the conference finished on Wednesday this seemed even more likely.
Boris Johnson, her infamous, unpredictable and unreliable Foreign Secretary chose the eve of the conference to give an interview to the Sun newspaper, in which he set out his Brexit agenda and his so-called red lines in the negotiations.
Leading from the back
If there had been any doubts following his recent Brexit manifesto article for the right-wing Daily Telegraph, the interview with Tory tabloid The Sun made it clear that he is either trying to remote control the negotiations, destabilise Mrs May or both.
His so-called red lines are:
- Transition period must be a maximum of two years
- UK must refuse to accept new EU rules during that period
- No payments for access to the single market after the end of the transition period
- UK must not agree to shadow EU rules to gain access to the single market
The one red line not mentioned is the loyalty line, which ministers are not expected to cross, by following collective cabinet responsibility and showing loyalty to the prime minister.
Johnson’s red lines were not a surprise to anyone but the manner and timing of his announcements are. Should his frequent mini-manifestos succeed in whipping the beyond reason Brexiteer constituency – both in and outside his party – into even more hysterical demands to “walk away” from the negotiations, where would this leave him?
Is this a man with a plan?
Let’s imagine his campaign causes enough instability to push May out, or at least trigger a leadership contest. Whether he could win a against Theresa May now is doubtful, mainly because the recently humbled Tory party, fresh from a poor performance at the general election, is terrified of another one any time soon. If he manages to push her out a general election to give him authority is almost certain.
If this is not his agenda then quite how a weakened leader, suffering frequent embarrassment due to his defiant media posturing, is good for the party, the country or the ongoing negotiations with the EU is a mystery.
When asked in a BBC interview on Tuesday if he is unsackable, Mrs May avoided answering the question, further underlining her weakness and thereby answering it anyway. The best she could manage was the response that strong leadership involved “having a range of voices sitting around the table”. A fair point perhaps, but this is not the same as one very loud voice constantly pushing its own agenda. Whispers from the conference suggest that the other voices around the cabinet table are sick of Johnson’s dual leadership mode.
Elder statesman of the Tory party and veteran Europhile Lord Heseltine attacked Johnson with the honest assessment that “in any normal situation he would be sacked” but added that May was “too weak” to do so.
Back with the ill behaviour
Johnson’s antics seem to be another dose of the sickness that got the UK into this mess in the first place; symptoms of this Europhobia are a combination of internal Tory party feuding and an illogical determination to return to an imaginary “ye olde England” . The lunatic fringe of the party, now perhaps bigger, stronger and bolder than it has ever been following the Brexit vote, seems determined to achieve a no deal kamikaze exit into the sunny uplands of Brave New Brexitism.
This is a world where, at least in their minds, queues of international leaders are waiting to sign up for exclusive trade deals with the UK, despite its impending isolation from the EU if they get their way. Harsh economic reality suggests that what was once a stepping stone to the EU for many multinationals might not be attractive once physical and legal borders are erected.
Whether Boris really believes in this brave new world was in doubt until shortly before the referendum campaign started, but just like Mrs May he has the passionate zeal of a born-again Brexiteer, although unhindered by the growing sense of realism she is displaying. Now unable to contain his urge to shout abuse at Brussels and all its representatives, he also displays a loud and enthusiastic disregard for the truth.
Don’t do the math(s)
In a recent row with the UK’s head of national statistics he repeated the claim that Brexit would create an extra £300 million per week for the national health service, as repeated throughout the referendum campaign but frequently rubbished by serious commentators and exerts. Sir David Norgrove had written to him stating that the figure was “a clear misuse of official statistics.”
Having not allowed the facts to get in the way of a good story then, and managed to fool 52% of the electorate (the people Mrs May erroneously refers to as “the British people”) why stop now, seems to be his logic, and who could argue with him.
Even allowing for all this success gained by bluster and buffoonery, the timing of his recent contributions which clearly embarrass and undermine May do not seem to add up to any sort of coherent plan.
Driving blind, for the second time
And perhaps this is the answer. Instead of a plan we have merely the ambition to lead from someone born to follow. Prior to his failed attempt to win the leadership on the back of the referendum success people had assumed that this was a man with a plan, a clever operator who had been mayor of London and come a long way with the boisterous bicycling Boris image. This time the unpredictable but never really unprepared character failed to deliver and he was exposed as lacking support and real friends when it mattered.
Having been outmanoeuvred by Theresa May he could probably barely believe his luck when offered the senior job of foreign secretary. The Lyndon B. Johnson logic of keeping your enemies inside the tent pissing out instead of outside the tent pissing in might have made sense at the time, but the platform she gave him to so publicly ignore and undermine her authority has clearly been a mistake. Whatever deal they had, it cannot have included the behaviour which has occurred in recent weeks.
It is now obvious that the one characteristic Boris Johnson and the architect of this Brexit mess David Cameron share is very poor judgement when it really matters. One started the process which rolled the ball to the edge of the cliff, now the other is jumping up and down trying to push it off. So much for an expensive Eton education!
Perhaps there is a master plan to sabotage the negotiations by undermining May, trigger a leadership campaign as the “Real Brexit” candidate, win a general election and then withdraw from negotiations if a list of unreasonable demands is not met. Then, under WTO rules, the UK can go from strength to strength, unhindered by trading partners, friendly neighbours, international weight or open doors.
The British Chambers of Commerce, representing many British businesses, is increasingly concerned with developments. During the conference BCC Director General Adam Marshall said:
“Businesspeople across Britain are growing impatient with division and disorganisation at the heart of the party of government, and have made it very clear that they expect competence and coherence from ministers as we move into a critical period for the economy.”
Lions, lame ducks and running out of luck
Competence and coherence will not be what the week is remembered for. The best Boris Johnson could come up with in his speech was some meaningless pseudo-patriotism about letting the lion roar, the lion apparently being the British people. Whether the post-Brexit roar will be of triumph or pain remains to be seen, as does the question of who the lion will turn his anger on if it is a roar of pain.
Following Boris’ attempt to rally the party, Theresa May finished the conference on Wednesday with a performance marred by faltering delivery, due to a cough. She was interrupted by a comedian who somehow managed to reach the podium and hand her a P45 for Boris Johnson, which is the tax document UK employers issue to employees on dismissal. Just when people thought things could not get any worse, letters on the conference slogan behind her started to fall off the backdrop. All just a coincidence of course, but somehow it seemed like a message from on high whether you believe in these things or not.
Since Wednesday rumours of a plot to remove her have started to grow. Grant Shapps, former party co-chairman, says that at least 30 MPs are prepared to put their names to a letter asking her to resign.
Although his previous comments, which seemed to defend May, perfectly illustrate the uncertainty the government and party is suffering from.
The only calculation which matters now is which solution to the current mess will damage them the least. Even if Mrs May survives this current scare the next attack could push the good ship Brexit on to the rocks. As people search for the life boats, will Captain Boris and his rowdy crew of Brexit pirates be leading the rescue or jumping overboard?