Brexit is the product of the dysfunctional relationship between Theresa May and Boris Johnson, says JANE MERRICK. Even after Johnson’s resignation, that will remain the case.
On the morning after Boris Johnson’s dramatic resignation, Theresa May emerged from No.10 wearing an elaborate hat as part of her outfit for the centenary celebrations of the RAF at Westminster Abbey. Commentators on Twitter noticed that part of the headgear’s decoration looked like a clump of wayward blond hair recently snatched from its owner. During a tumultuous 24 hours, from the resignation at 11.30pm on Sunday of David Davis through a febrile day in Westminster on Monday, it had looked as though the Prime Minister might be toppled from power. But by Tuesday morning, as she emerged out of No.10 in that hat, amid widespread denunciation of the manner of Johnson’s resignation, it seemed as though it was his scalp she was brandishing. It remains to be seen which of the two will ultimately emerge on top. But one thing is already clear. Even though Johnson has left the Cabinet, his and Theresa May’s fortunes remain – as they have been for years – deeply entwined.
The prime minister’s demeanour, on the steps of Downing Street and in her appearances in parliament this week, has been remarkably upbeat; bizarre behaviour, you might think, from someone who could still face a confidence vote of her own MPs at any time. But she has known, throughout the two years she has been premier, that the simmering tensions over Brexit with its leading Cabinet proponent, Johnson, could explode into the open at any moment. Now, that moment has arrived and the tension has been released. It was as if May was engulfed by a tidal wave of relief.
When she won the Tory leadership by default in July 2016, she had to appoint Johnson as foreign secretary to neuter him from any backbench freelancing on Brexit. As the months unfolded, she failed to keep him in line – notably after his speech to the Tory conference in 2017 with its off-message call to ‘let the lion roar’. She had given the foreign secretary and other Brexiteer ministers – as she admitted in her reply to Johnson’s resignation letter this week – some ‘latitude’, but in reality Johnson was shaping Brexit.
Through his continued public musings on the subject, through briefings to the press via ‘friends’, and round the Cabinet table, he was able exert influence without the pressures of actual delivery, or the need to engage his vision with the harsh facts of reality. With his departure from the Cabinet, it falls to May to try to meet the unrealistic expectations he has helped create.
Johnson, meanwhile, must feel relieved too. He may seem a diminished figure, in the light of the contempt heaped on him from all sides this week, yet he will feel that his big opportunity still lies ahead.
After all, no one in Downing Street should be under any illusions the worst crisis of May’s premiership is over. For now, the anger among Brexiteer Tory MPs is directed at the Chequers agreement, which they see as a watering down of Brexit, rather than the prime minister. It is the deal they want to topple, rather than May herself. Yet if the deal goes to Brussels unchanged, and is negotiated into an even softer Brexit, they could make their move. And, as his resignation letter indicated, Johnson will be at the heart of it.
It was one of the most scathing from a departing Cabinet minister, accusing the prime minister of pursuing a ‘semi-Brexit’ that would relegate the status of the UK to a ‘colony’ and ‘sending our vanguard into battle with the white ?ags ?uttering above them’. The ‘dream’ of Brexit is ‘dying’, he wrote, ‘suffocated by needless self-doubt’.
Its savagery was on a scale to match Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech which precipitated the downfall of Margaret Thatcher: ‘It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.’
Whether Johnson’s will have the same impact and bring down his prime minister is another matter. But with his parting shot, he has lumbered May with the idea that the ‘dream’ of Brexit is unattainable and tainted, while he remains its unsullied standard bearer.
The difference between the two speeches is that Howe delivered his from the Commons benches, while Johnson’s came, unvoiced, in a letter. Could Johnson have stood up in parliament and delivered his devastating remarks in the same way as Howe? It is likely, given the strength of animosity towards the former foreign secretary among his parliamentary colleagues, he would have been heckled throughout.
Many believe he is a hypocrite for backing the Chequers deal last Friday only to change his mind over the weekend. They criticised him for failing to turn up to meetings on Monday, including one with fellow foreign ministers he was supposed to be hosting, and an emergency Cobra meeting to discuss the killing of the mother of three Dawn Sturgess by the Novichok nerve agent. To have spent that time writing his own resignation letter, and drafting in a photographer to capture the moment, was derided as the height of vanity.
However, for all Johnson’s self-obsession, there was an element of truth in his resignation letter with which even Remain supporters can agree. The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip highlighted various mistakes May will have to answer for. He pointed out crucial decisions on Brexit have been postponed, including preparations for a ‘no deal’.
May began her premiership by announcing she would delay the start of Brexit negotiations, yet eight months later went ahead in March 2017, in launching Article 50, which triggered the two year process of leaving, having not achieved any common ground in her Cabinet, let alone in her party or parliament, about what Brexit should look like. Her position shifted from ‘Brexit means Brexit’ to ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ at Lancaster House in January 2017 to a considerably softer stance at the Mansion House last autumn.
All the while, the contradictions in her cabinet were suppressed. The PM fought shy of having the showdown her country needed her to have with Johnson, for fear of losing office.
That this week’s face-off between the two of them has been two years’ coming – with all the bad blood that has accumulated over that time – is a disgrace, and dangerous for the country. We are now only a few months away from the deadline of October by which a final deal is needed with Brussels. If a disastrous ‘no deal’ is the outcome of all of this prevaricating and procrastinating, the prime minister must shoulder much of the blame for her mishandling of Johnson.
The intensity of his attack on May – and her correspondingly disdainful reply – gave a hint to the fractious relationship between the two politicians that goes back further than the referendum. While Johnson was mayor of London, he frequently clashed with May, as home secretary, over immigration, including his opposition to counting foreign students in migration targets, as well as a bizarre row over his buying up of 25-year-old water cannons from Germany to use on London’s streets. May blocked their use, rendering the equipment a useless and costly extravagance, and the battle epitomised their differing approaches – the roundhead home secretary versus the cavalier mayor.
When May ran for Tory leader two years ago, she twisted the knife by joking that Johnson, at that point a rival candidate, couldn’t be trusted to get a good deal from Europe because the ‘last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon’.
Her pitch to the ‘just about managing’ was, among other things, a swipe at the Eton-educated Johnson whom, she suggested, treated politics like a ‘game’. She said: ‘If you are from an ordinary working class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise… Frankly, not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this and some need to be told that it isn’t a game. It’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives.’
Fast forward two years, and both politicians have played true to type. One has posed for vanity photos, draped over his resignation letter, having previously refused to resign on principle over Heathrow, or his ill-advised remarks about British-Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or ‘dead bodies’ in Libya; the other has procrastinated Brexit to the point of a dangerous ‘no deal’. Neither has served the country with distinction. When May parades Johnson’s scalp in Westminster, she should be aware that it could be hers next.