John­son’s Brexit plan: Is it lead­er­ship move?

As May con­tin­ues merely to sur­vive and dithers with an exit plan, po­ten­tial Tory lead­ers may be mak­ing their way for­ward

Gulf News - - Opinion -

s we all re­mem­ber, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May promised us “strong and sta­ble lead­er­ship”. It was not to be. Her post-elec­tion weak­ness is ob­vi­ous, and although she has made no egre­gious new mis­takes, she seems quite un­able to shift her tone or raise our spir­its. What we have had for some months now started to look like a strange new genre — weak and sta­ble lead­er­ship.

The bulk of the broad­cast and posh me­dia, be­ing pro-Re­main, have failed to make clear that, in Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary terms, Brexit is go­ing steadily for­ward. Thanks to the in­spired in­ter­ven­tion of Gina Miller’s court case — which in­tended the op­po­site ef­fect — par­lia­ment voted a long time ago to trig­ger Ar­ti­cle 50. This means that, by law, we shall leave the Euro­pean Union (EU) on March 30, 2019.

Last week, the Bri­tish par­lia­ment passed by 36 votes the se­cond Read­ing of the EU With­drawal Bill. There was not a sin­gle Con­ser­va­tive rebel on that vote — or on the Queen’s Speech — and there were 21 Labour MPs who ei­ther voted with the gov­ern­ment or ab­stained. There could still be sev­eral slips ‘twixt cup and lip — an am­bush in the Com­mons, a sur­feit of Re­mainer lawyers in the Lords — but the chances of rev­ers­ing the process di­min­ish by the day. The pub­lic mood also trav­els in the Leave di­rec­tion. “Get on with it” is what most peo­ple say, with vary­ing de­grees of en­thu­si­asm. This helps ex­plain why there has been, up till now, no lead­er­ship chal­lenge to May.

Pro-Leave Con­ser­va­tive MPs who have al­ways had quite a low opin­ion of her, even in her few months of pre-elec­tion glory, nev­er­the­less feel that she is on track, whether she likes it or not. Re­main-sup­port­ing ones fear they have no can­di­date who can win a party lead­er­ship con­test. They there­fore sulk, but bear it. Nei­ther camp wants an­other gen­eral elec­tion. May there­fore sur­vives.

But there re­mains wide­spread un­ease about what might hap­pen in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, and the con­se­quent need for vis­i­ble lead­er­ship to steady nerves and point the way through.

In Fri­day morn­ing’s pa­per, John­son of­fers a punchy ar­ti­cle about the whole Euro­pean sit­u­a­tion. It reads more like a speech. It would have been bet­ter for the prime min­is­ter if she had en­cour­aged him to de­liver it as one, with her at­ten­tive su­per­vi­sion but warm ap­proval. In­stead, though it con­tra­dicts no pol­icy, it feels like a re­proach for what she has not done.

As a po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion at this mo­ment, the piece is mas­terly. John­son cuts the Gor­dian knot about leav­ing or stay­ing: We can’t be “52 per cent out and 48 per cent in”. The ar­ti­cle is full of vim, op­ti­mism and ge­nial pa­tri­o­tism about Bri­tain post-Brexit. It cheers the troops by at­tack­ing Labour (Cor­byn has “a re­mark­able beardy abil­ity to speak out of both sides of his mouth”). It breaks out of the cy­cle of fear which held us cap­tive in the EU for so long even though we could see that it was not, de­spite For­eign Of­fice protes­ta­tions, “go­ing our way”.

May seems a pris­oner of fear her­self. In­stead, John­son’s ar­ti­cle of­fers an at­trac­tive pic­ture of Bri­tain’s global fu­ture — its tech­nolo­gies, its tax free­dom, its great uni­ver­si­ties, its bet­ter use of our for­mer EU con­tri­bu­tion, its chance to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity, and an im­prob­a­ble flight of fancy about how the NHS could lead the world in gene ther­apy. Even its el­e­ments of Borisian tosh make one more cheer­ful.

Get­ting in first

John­son’s tim­ing is the op­po­site of that which he chose in the ref­er­en­dum, when his in­de­ci­sion was all but fi­nal, and he barely had time to cam­paign. He was the big­gest beast to board the Leave ark, but also the last. This may have dam­aged his prospects in the lead­er­ship con­test after the re­sult. This time, he is get­ting in first, when ev­ery­one was plan­ning to take the party con­fer­ence next month qui­etly.

Now John­son, who is far bet­ter with con­fer­ence au­di­ences than any other mem­ber of the Cab­i­net, is mak­ing the weather. It is cer­tain that Boris will not en­dear him­self to large num­bers of par­lia­men­tary col­leagues by what he has just done. Most of them are sus­pi­cious or jeal­ous of him. Many will not wel­come such drama at this tricky time.

His in­ter­ven­tion will also in­cite his ri­vals to en­ter the fray, though it is hard to imag­ine what any of them could say to trump him. Per­haps their best bet will be to present them­selves as safe pairs of hands, im­ply­ing that John­son is self­ish and flaky. I also notice that the large new gen­er­a­tion of Tory MPs from the 2015 and 2017 in­takes is mov­ing for­ward fast, and is clearly unim­pressed by their el­ders and sup­posed bet­ters in the Cab­i­net. A lit­tle­known, much younger can­di­date might ap­pear.

As ever, the crav­ings of the Con­ser­va­tive Party need to be dis­tin­guished from those of Bri­tain. Would it re­ally help, at this crit­i­cal junc­ture, to place Bri­tain’s fu­ture in John­son’s hands? Would it be a case of the blond lead­ing the blind? Would it force an­other elec­tion, thus risk­ing ‘Prime Min­is­ter’ Cor­byn?

On the other hand, John­son would not be writ­ing as if he is there were not a vac­uum to fill. That vac­uum is lo­cated in 10 Down­ing Street. Bri­tons are liv­ing through a very strange pas­sage in their is­land story.

Charles Moore has been ed­i­tor of the Spec­ta­tor, the Sun­day Tele­graph and the Daily Tele­graph. He is the au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­pher of Mar­garet Thatcher.

Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

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