What to do with Boris? Ambitious and loose-lipped, Johnson shakes up Brexit debate and PM May
His latest act of insubordination came in the form of a 4,000-word essay outlining his hardline vision for a ‘glorious Brexit’
British Prime Minister Theresa May must be asking herself: How do you solve a problem like Boris Johnson?
Britain’s undiplomatic chief diplomat has thrown British politics into turmoil by thrusting himself to the front of the Brexit debate at the worst possible time for the country’s leader.
The insurrection has left friends and foes scrambling to determine his motives. Is he about to resign, get fired, mount a coup? Is he trying to push May into adopting his free-market vision of life outside the European Union?
The one certainty is that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is exactly where he likes to be: at the centre of attention.
“Everyone asking, ‘What the hell is going on with Boris?’ is sort of the end goal for Boris,” Manchester University political science professor Rob Ford said. “He wants people to be talking about Boris. So mission accomplished.”
Johnson is one of Britain’s best-known politicians, a Conservative whose rumpled exterior – affable, flaxen-haired upper-class eccentric – covers a core of steely ambition.
His latest political move came in a 4,000-word Daily Telegraph article on Saturday outlining his vision of a “glorious Brexit.” It was published days before the prime minister travels to Florence, Italy on Friday to make a speech intended to unblock log-jammed divorce talks with the EU.
Johnson’s article called for the UK to adopt a low-tax, low-regulation economy outside the EU’s single market and customs union. Seemingly written without consulting May, it was widely seen as an act of insubordination that would get most ministers fired.
But pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke said that May, weakened after losing her parliamentary majority in June’s snap election, “is not in the position easily to sack him.”
Political scientist Ford said Johnson’s actions could be interpreted as a dare for May to fire him.
“It’s almost like he is saying to Theresa May: ‘Go ahead, punk, make my day,’” he said.
The response from May and her allies was noticeably muted.
“Boris is Boris,” May said, insisting that “the UK government is driven from the front, and we all have the same destination in our sights.”
Johnson, meanwhile, denied planning to quit or manoeuvring to oust May. Cornered – in his jogging clothes – by British reporters in a New York hotel lobby on Tuesday, he insisted that the government was a harmonious “nest of singing birds.”
That’s unlikely. The Cabinet is split between Brexit true believers, including Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who want a sharp break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to soften the economic impact through a long status-quo transition period.
May is trying to keep the warring sides from tearing her government apart. Johnson’s article helps position him as figurehead of the “hard Brexit” faction.
“He is trying to create an alternative base for himself in the Conservative Party and portray Theresa May as a lame duck – which in essence she is,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds.
Honeyman said becoming prime minister is Johnson’s ultimate goal, “though I think Boris Johnson generally is someone who travels in zigzags, rather than in a straight line.”
His career bears out that description. The 53-year-old has been a journalist (and was once fired for fabricating a quote), a magazine editor, a member of Parliament, the mayor of London between 2008 and 2016 and a leading campaigner to quit the EU during last year’s referendum campaign.
When David Cameron resigned as prime minister after the referendum, Johnson planned to run to replace him. But he was abandoned by a key Conservative ally and outmanoeuvred by May.
She made him foreign secretary, one of the most important posts in government. But Johnson’s remit does not include Brexit, which is consuming most of the government’s time and energy – and getting most of the attention.
In March, Britain triggered a two-year countdown to departure from the 28-nation EU. Since then, negotiations have made little progress on key issues including the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and the amount Britain must pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc.
Increasingly frustrated EU officials insist the talks can’t move on to a future trade deal with Britain until those key divorce terms have been agreed upon. Some speculate May will make a multibillion pound offer to the bloc in her Florence speech to break the stalemate.
That would annoy hard-core euroskeptics, who insist Britain doesn’t owe a penny – a sentiment echoed by Johnson in July, when he said the bloc could “go whistle” if it made extortionate financial demands.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan, who is from Ireland, said Johnson’s statements suggested “that he is completely out of the loop” about the hard realities of exit negotiations.
“Mr Johnson is behaving and acting and speaking strangely,” Hogan told the Evening Standard newspaper. “It’s clear that his reputation is not good and he is a diminished figure in the government.”