Jane Merrick: A Brexiteer on the brink - Is Boris Johnson losing it?

PUBLISHED: 19:00 02 September 2017

There have been reports, from anonymous 'allies', of Boris Johnson's 'odd' behaviour, leading to speculation that he is ready to quit his job. Photo: PA

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Boris Johnson has long been loathed by Remainers. Now, even the Tory grassroots are turning on him. Jane Merrick reports on the Foreign Secretary’s waning star.

This summer, the United States wasn’t the only country to witness a total eclipse..

In the UK, another golden figure was blocked out - and this time it could be permanent. Boris Johnson, for years the star of the Conservative Party’s grassroots, the People’s Foreign Secretary and hot favourite of rubber chicken-fed activists, was eclipsed by someone just as eccentric and cultish - Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Conservative Home’s latest leadership survey, which has been testing the views of rank and file Tory members for more than a decade and is seen as the most accurate barometer of grassroots affiliations, showed Johnson’s personal rating has slipped dramatically. Rees-Mogg was not even offered as a choice in the survey but so many people put his name under “other” that he would have beaten the Foreign Secretary into third place.

This eclipse seems set to continue into the Tory party conference in Manchester in October. Every year since 2005, Johnson has been the star attraction at the conference, trailed by a mob of television cameras, journalists and keen party members wherever he went. Since 2007, his main platform speech has packed out the conference hall, the competition for seats rivalled only by that for his party leader’s closing address. This year in Manchester, however, the anticipation is all for Rees-Mogg - even if his top billing will be on the conference fringe.

'Moggmentum' began over the summer recess and was fuelled by stories that he was considering a bid for leader next time around. The speculation was not dimmed when the backbench Tory traditionalist, asked if he might stand for leader, said: "I wouldn’t put any money on it" - the sort of falsely modest non-denial denial that might have come from Johnson’s mouth.

Is the realisation that he is no longer the darling of the Tory grassroots causing the Foreign Secretary to have some sort of crisis of confidence? There have been reports, from anonymous "allies", of Johnson’s "odd" behaviour, leading to speculation that he is ready to quit his job. When he travelled to Libya last week, the Foreign Secretary seemed to lack his normal vigour and delivered a rueful swipe at Theresa May over her reckless election campaign.

Criticism of his approach to one of the great offices of state has intensified. In a blistering attack in the Evening Standard, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, the former head of the diplomatic service and ex-ambassador to the US and EU, accused Johnson of "failures to win friends" around the world - including angering the Germans over his use of the word "liberation" to describe Brexit. Lord Kerr said the Foreign Secretary had failed to set out Britain’s post-Brexit role in Europe and the world, asking: "Why, though so damagingly voluble on others' business, is he so silent about his own?"

In the Times this week, the columnist Rachel Sylvester said while in the US over the summer hedge fund managers, tech entrepreneurs and political strategists asked her: "Why has your prime minister appointed a fool as foreign secretary?" and reported that Foreign Office civil servants were so exasperated at his lack of discipline they had started asking Johnson's deputy, Alan Duncan, to make decisions instead.

When May became Prime Minister 14 months ago, Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary was the surprise move of her first reshuffle, particularly as his partner-in-Brexit Michael Gove was so brutally sacked. To give Boris one of the most senior positions in the Cabinet, a historic office of state, when he would have felt lucky to have been given DCMS, was intensely flattering.

But as previous inhabitants of Carlton Gardens have found, being Foreign Secretary is a lonely job, detached from the gossip of Westminster and one from which it is difficult to drum up support for a leadership campaign in the Commons tea rooms. Not since James Callaghan in 1976 has a Foreign Secretary gone straight into the office of Prime Minister or leader of their party (John Major held the post for three months in 1989 but was Chancellor for a year before succeeding Margaret Thatcher). As Foreign Secretary for three years before the 2010 Labour leadership contest, David Miliband arguably failed to see his brother Ed, who spent weeks chatting to Labour MPs over coffee in Portcullis House, as the dark horse candidate.

Even with the increasing use by Tory MPs of WhatsApp, a virtual tea room of plotting and outlet of dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister, it is difficult to gauge the mood of backbench Tories when staring out of the window of a BAE146 or sitting in the stale environment of a windowless room in Brussels. It would be unsurprising if Johnson wished for another role – but after Foreign Secretary there are few places to go: apart from Prime Minister, only Chancellor would be a promotion. The thought of Johnson being responsible for the nation’s finances will send shivers down the spine of Treasury officials.

In 2012, when the then London mayor’s popularity was surging off the back of the Olympics, his former editor Charles Moore wrote in the Spectator that Johnson was a "lazy workaholic": prolific in output but sloppy on detail. This approach has stayed with him in government. A Whitehall official describes the exasperation of trying to cut through the Foreign Secretary’s "bluster" and get him to focus. He has what is described as the “restlessness and flibbertigibbetness of the journalist” which sets on edge the teeth of the drily cautious mandarin.

But some don’t see this as a downside: one who knows the Foreign Secretary well says this journalistic quality of being able to change with the prevailing mood, of turning on a sixpence, could work well in the closing stages of Brexit negotiations when quick thinking, rather than the glacial pace of officialdom, is needed. Johnson is still a gifted orator who can win over a crowd. If the detail is lacking, the former journalist can still deliver a headline.

Yet accusations of a lack of discretion and diplomacy are more damaging, particularly when Britain is trying to win support for new trade deals around the world after Brexit. Having insulted the Germans by talk of “liberation” for the UK from Europe at a speech in Munich earlier this year, Johnson annoyed the French by letting slip their plan for UN peace talks in Libya. On Monday night, when North Korea launched a missile over Japan to widespread international alarm, Johnson tweeted that he was "outraged at reckless provocation by #NorthKorea. Strongly condemn latest illegal missile launch by #DPRK". But surely no one takes seriously the idea that the Foreign Secretary can be the man to tread delicately into the theatre of Pyongyang’s trigger-happy paranoia.

Johnson has clearly tried to shake off his image of a celebrity buffoon and appear more statesmanlike. Fresh from his trip to Libya last week, the Foreign Secretary struck a remarkably serious tone in a Radio 4 Today interview. For next month’s Tory party conference speech, which is being written in part by the former Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent and international specialist David Blair, Johnson is expected to be statesmanlike and studiously loyal to the Prime Minister.

This is not just about the national interest but his own self-interest: May is being urged to replace Johnson with Michael Gove, recently brought out of exile into the Cabinet as Environment Secretary. From the point of view of Gove’s supporters, he has both the journalist’s eye for a headline but also the academic obsession with detail. Gove has made an impact in every Cabinet job he has held, and would know how to bring the historian’s sensitivity to talks with European partners. He has, say supporters, stronger links than Johnson with the Trump White House - having secured the first non-US interview with the president after his election victory.

Despite their shared responsibility for the Leave campaign, Johnson’s prominence has also made him the lightning conductor for public anger over Brexit. Both Johnson and Gove are to blame for the misleading claim of £350m a week for the NHS - but the Foreign Secretary has taken most of the heat. Is it better for Johnson to be seen as a cynical liar than a hapless buffoon? Surely it depends on who the electorate is.

Downing Street denied reports last weekend that the Prime Minister has told MPs she is planning to stand down by September 2019, but an exit date well before the next election certainly helps to calm down talk of a leadership contest in the run-up to what is going to be a difficult party conference for May after her electoral disaster in June. Nevertheless, Tory MPs are perennially obsessed with leadership speculation. And while Johnson has always enjoyed popular support among grassroots (until this summer at least), he does not have a substantial following among MPs.

Despite this, many who know Johnson believe he has not given up ambitions of leading the Conservative Party. His biographer, Andrew Gimson, said he was "100% convinced" Johnson still wants the top job, adding: "It is just in his nature. When he was on Desert Island Discs he said all politicians were like crazed wasps in a jam jar, each individually convinced that they’re going to make it, and he is still that crazed wasp in a jam jar. He cannot help himself from thinking about how the cards will fall, or rather, how to encourage the cards to fall right so that he gets it."

Yet with his support waning among Tory grassroots and criticism mounting abroad, Johnson might find it impossible to get the cards to fall in his favour.

  • Jane Merrick is a freelance journalist and columnist; follow her @janemerrick23

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