Get a grip, Mrs May – or we’ll go over a cliff

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Comment -

BORIS JOHN­SON is a man of many tal­ents – so elo­quent and dis­tinc­tive that he is fa­mously said to reach parts of the elec­torate which other Tories can’t.

But even if we take at face value the For­eign Sec­re­tary’s protes­ta­tions of loy­alty to Theresa May, the tim­ing of his 4,000-word Brexit opus is, to say the least, ques­tion­able – a ‘hand grenade through Down­ing Street’s win­dow’, in the words of one of his al­lies, just hours af­ter ter­ror­ists struck Lon­don.

It is hard to view this as any­thing other than a hos­tile act, com­ing less than a week be­fore Mrs May sets out her own Brexit vi­sion in a speech in Florence.

The presses were al­ready rolling on Friday evening when his of­fi­cials in­formed Mrs May about the newspaper ar­ti­cle, giv­ing her less than an hour’s no­tice of what was about to be­fall her.

The Prime Min­is­ter, dis­tracted by all­day cri­sis meet­ings on the Tube bomb, was com­pletely blind­sided.

Mr John­son has clearly thrown down the gaunt­let.

He de­nies he is fir­ing the start­ing gun for a lead­er­ship chal­lenge. But re­mem­ber, this is the man who, as this newspaper has chron­i­cled, was tex­ting his sup­port for the Prime Min­is­ter af­ter her Gen­eral Elec­tion catas­tro­phe – while his al­lies were brief­ing that it was ‘Go, go, go!’ for him to take over if she fell.

Margaret Thatcher’s bi­og­ra­pher Charles Moore, writ­ing in the same pa­per as Mr John­son’s ar­ti­cle, de­scribes it as ‘Boris’s lead­er­ship bid, couched in such a way that he need not un­say any­thing if it goes wrong’.

At the very least, it amounts to a pug­na­cious bid to in­flu­ence the con­tent of Mrs May’s speech – and not in a way which would ad­van­tage the coun­try.

As tal­is­man of the Leave cam­paign, and pro­mul­ga­tor of the hugely con­tro­ver­sial pledge to re­turn £350mil­lion of Brus­sels money every week ‘to the NHS’, Mr John­son has sim­mered with frus­tra­tion as the Cab­i­net forms a set­tled view on the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions: that if we want to un­lock talks over trade, we will need to hand over around £15bil­lion a year to Brus­sels over a two- to three-year tran­si­tion pe­riod, while pro­tect­ing jobs by re­tain­ing ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket.

Mr John­son is now vir­tu­ally alone in Cab­i­net in ad­vo­cat­ing a dam­ag­ing ‘hard’ Brexit, in which we would pay only a mod­est ‘di­vorce bill’ as we crash out of the EU.

The Prime Min­is­ter needs to put down this re­volt by re­assert­ing her grip on the Govern­ment – and mak­ing clear that Mr John­son will not be al­lowed to back-seat drive this coun­try to­wards a cat­a­strophic, cliff-edge Brexit.

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