Life and times
Telegraph political editor Gordon Rayner
‘YES, BORIS JOHNSON is still Foreign Secretary,’ says a weary Downing Street spokesman in a familiar ‘Why are you wasting my time with such stupid questions?’ tone. But in the few minutes it takes me to walk back from Number 10 to my desk in Parliament, Boris Johnson will cease to be Foreign Secretary, proving that in politics, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
This was early July – the start of two of the busiest and most unsettling weeks of the year, if not my career, in Parliament – and the end of a briefing convened to explain the details of the Government’s Brexit White Paper. But after David Davis’s late-night resignation as Brexit Secretary hours before, and with speculation mounting that Mr Johnson would soon follow, listening to half an hour of spin on the facilitated customs arrangement seemed like time I didn’t have.
When you enter Number 10 (which really does involve walking up and knocking on that famous front door), mobiles are confiscated, leaving you cut off from the world. It’s enough to turn a political journalist into a bag of nerves, and also helps to explain why the Boris question was entirely reasonable: none of us could be sure of the answer.
Moments after I got back to my desk, an email marked ‘Statement [OFFICIAL]’ arrived from Downing Street announcing Mr Johnson’s resignation – sent by the same person who had earlier denied he had gone. It was only Monday afternoon, but it felt as if a week had flashed by, such was the pace of events. And we still had the small matter of Donald Trump to come...
FAST FORWARD TO FRIDAY, and after a few more resignations, an explosive Nato summit in Brussels and Trump’s now infamous interview in The Sun, in which he denounced Mrs May’s Brexit plan, I found myself waiting on a pavement in central London at 5.30am for the media transport to Chequers.
Mrs May’s press conference with Mr Trump was scheduled for 1.40pm, but US security demands are such that reporters were ordered to rendezvous at 6am to be searched ahead of the 40-mile coach trip to Buckinghamshire.
Trump’s arrival there, in a thudding formation of five helicopters, was rather more impressive than ours, and felt like an invasion rather than a visit. To paraphrase the Eurosceptics, Chequers had briefly become a vassal state of America.
We were eventually ushered on to the lawn for the press conference. And then, there he was. The Donald. Holding Theresa May’s hand (is that now their trademark?) as they walked down the steps to the dais before commencing a press conference that did not disappoint.
Watching Trump when May was speaking, I was struck by just how much of a caricature he is. Surveying the scene with that chin-up pose borrowed from Mussolini, I couldn’t help wondering if he was involuntarily doing an impression of Alec Baldwin doing an impression of him. And his hands, disappointingly, weren’t tiny at all.
ON THE FINAL Wednesday before Parliament’s summer recess, May endured a Brexit-fuelled afternoon from hell. Within six hours, she faced Prime Minister’s Questions, a marathon grilling by an all-party committee, a showdown with her backbenchers at the 1922 Committee, and Boris Johnson’s resignation speech. What better way to end the day than a drinks reception at Number 10?
It’s hard to know who felt more uncomfortable – the journalists or Mrs May. Small talk is not exactly her favourite pastime. Moving between guests, she straight-batted all comers like her hero Geoffrey Boycott, leaving us all staring at the ground awkwardly. I wonder if Trump had the same experience?
Trump’s arrival, in a thudding formation of helicopters, felt like an invasion rather than a visit