A quick recap for those who don’t bother keeping up with this sort of thing any longer: Boris Johnson’s long awaited thoughts on Brexit 2.0 were published in the Telegraph this weekend. Many wondered if he might be about to say Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, which seems naïve now. Of course, he doubled down on everything: even the £350 million a week for the NHS, which most Brexiteers have been keen to bury since the referendum was won. As an encore, he got into a public fight about the £350 figure with the UK statistics watchdog. The week of May’s Florence speech, in which she is expected to inject a bit of realism into the Brexit debate in the UK, Boris has decided he wants to be the voice of the UKIPy. This isn’t much of a surprise for many reasons.
Theresa May probably thought she was doing something clever when she made Boris Foreign Secretary and then stripped the office of any real power. The biggest foreign affairs issue of the day is Brexit, and she created not one but two separate cabinet level posts to remove the FCO pretty much entirely from the equation. For a while, it looked like the plan was working – everyone was talking about how Boris was yesterday’s man. However, she left herself open to something like the Telegraph article, which is a classic Boris manoeuvre. Putting BoJo in a highly visible position of powerlessness, one in which he can claim to have been in the room while everything was going wrong but with a great excuse for deferring all blame, now looks foolish all of a sudden. Essentially, the underlying message of Boris’ article was this: if I had become PM in the summer of 2016, we’d be in a much better place in the EU negotiations than we are now. Brexit isn’t faltering because it was a bad idea; it is because Theresa May is screwing it all up.
Theresa May could sack him – but that’s risky. The Brexit bunch might suck it up if she did so, saying Boris had to go for any number of reasons anyhow – or they could take it as provocation, particularly in a week in which she is looking to have to climb down on several aspects of her January speech. Meanwhile, Boris has done the thing that is most likely to gain him the Tory leadership at some point in the future. It may not work in the end, but it is his best move, strategically for his own interests, I mean of course.
I recall the speculation last year when everyone wondered about the thinking behind appointing the Three Brexiteers, BoJo, Davis and Fox. Was it some brilliantly Machiavellian move that would show its genius over the course of time? We now have the answer to that: no, it wasn’t terribly smart at all. In fact, she’s boxed herself in, and would have done even if she’d won the election at a canter.