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Theresa May

Is Boris Johnson unsackable? British PM Theresa May dodges the question at Tory conference

Foreign minister Johnson, with his ongoing provocations, could be positioning himself as a future ‘Brexit martyr’ on the backbenches

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:00pm

Less than a year ago, UK Prime Minister Theresa May compared one-time leadership contender Boris Johnson to a dog who was put to sleep “when its master decided it wasn’t needed any more”. That was when she was at the height of her powers.

On Sunday, after her foreign secretary yet again set out an independent course on Brexit, a weakened May could only laugh and dodge the question when asked if he was “unsackable”. It’s the second time in two weeks that she’s been put on the spot by her errant top diplomat – but this time it coincides with the Conservative Party’s annual conference in the city of Manchester.

“Johnson’s every move will therefore come under the microscope in Manchester,” Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said in a email. “Many in the party believe he is goading May into sacking him, so that he can become a ‘Brexit martyr’ on the backbenches.”

Rahman went on to say that even if she doesn’t fire him, “he might resign anyway, calculating that his prospects of succeeding May will be enhanced if he can champion a clean break from the EU.” Either way, the situation is seen as increasingly untenable.

Johnson’s actions are a constant reminder of just how vulnerable May is after her botched election gamble in June left the Tories without a working majority in Parliament just as she was heading into complex Brexit talks with a well-prepared and determined adversary in the shape of Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator.

May has stabilised her position in the months since the election, but don’t be fooled: the memorable description of her as a “dead woman walking’’ still applies. The prime minister says she’ll run for re-election but there is no appetite for that scenario, not among Tory lawmakers or even party members.

But crucially there is also little desire for another change of guard. Graham Brady, a senior Tory lawmaker who speaks for the rank-and-file, was asked about Johnson in a BBC interview and he was unequivocal in saying there was no “demand for a debate about the future leadership of the party.”

Johnson says the suggestion that he’s undermining May is wrong, and that he’s simply standing up for the people who voted for Brexit. But his public statements have the advantage of positioning him as the keeper of the Brexit flame. This could be a strong position from which to run for the top job.

Known for his gaffes and mop of messy blond hair, Johnson is a perpetual candidate for the Tory leadership, though he’s flunked his two opportunities to run. He’s so well-known that back in the UK he’s simply known as Boris, and behind his public buffoonery he has keen political instincts. He was the face of the successful campaign to leave the EU back in 2016.

Video released at the weekend that showed Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar having to restrain the foreign secretary from reciting a potentially offensive poem while visiting a Buddhist temple again highlighted Johnson’s weaknesses as a candidate. Whether voters care about his blunders is another matter, as Donald Trump’s rise to power has shown.

If his interventions over the past month have achieved nothing else, they demonstrate he has the kind of star power no one else in the cabinet, including May, can match.