As we all remember, British Prime Minister Theresa May promised us “strong and stable leadership”. It was not to be. Her post-election weakness is obvious, and although she has made no egregious new mistakes, she seems quite unable to shift her tone or raise our spirits. What we have had for some months now started to look like a strange new genre — weak and stable leadership.
The bulk of the broadcast and posh media, being pro-Remain, have failed to make clear that, in British parliamentary terms, Brexit is going steadily forward. Thanks to the inspired intervention of Gina Miller’s court case — which intended the opposite effect — parliament voted a long time ago to trigger Article 50. This means that, by law, we shall leave the European Union (EU) on March 30, 2019.
Last week, the British parliament passed by 36 votes the second Reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill. There was not a single Conservative rebel on that vote — or on the Queen’s Speech — and there were 21 Labour MPs who either voted with the government or abstained. There could still be several slips ‘twixt cup and lip — an ambush in the Commons, a surfeit of Remainer lawyers in the Lords — but the chances of reversing the process diminish by the day. The public mood also travels in the Leave direction. “Get on with it” is what most people say, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This helps explain why there has been, up till now, no leadership challenge to May.
Pro-Leave Conservative MPs who have always had quite a low opinion of her, even in her few months of pre-election glory, nevertheless feel that she is on track, whether she likes it or not. Remain-supporting ones fear they have no candidate who can win a party leadership contest. They therefore sulk, but bear it. Neither camp wants another general election. May therefore survives.
But there remains widespread unease about what might happen in the negotiations, and the consequent need for visible leadership to steady nerves and point the way through. In her Lancaster House speech in January, May set out crisply what she intended; but that was before the election. After its near-disastrous result, a second such occasion is needed. This is presumably why she hit upon Florence as the backdrop for her big speech next week — her Renaissance moment before the party conference next month. It was never going to be as exciting as Dante first clapping eyes on Beatrice on the banks of the Arno, but from today any possible eclat is eclipsed — by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
In Friday morning’s paper, Johnson offers a punchy article about the whole European situation. It reads more like a speech. It would have been better for the prime minister if she had encouraged him to deliver it as one, with her attentive supervision but warm approval. Instead, though it contradicts no policy, it feels like a reproach for what she has not done.
As a political intervention at this moment, the piece is masterly. Johnson cuts the Gordian knot about leaving or staying: We can’t be “52 per cent out and 48 per cent in”. The article is full of vim, optimism and genial patriotism about Britain post-Brexit. It cheers the troops by attacking Labour (Corbyn has “a remarkable beardy ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth”). It breaks out of the cycle of fear which held us captive in the EU for so long even though we could see that it was not, despite Foreign Office protestations, “going our way”.
May seems a prisoner of fear herself. Instead, Johnson’s article offers an attractive picture of Britain’s global future — its technologies, its tax freedom, its great universities, its better use of our former EU contribution, its chance to improve productivity, and an improbable flight of fancy about how the NHS could lead the world in gene therapy. Even its elements of Borisian tosh make one more cheerful.
The piece is also artful. Note the little swipes at possible opponents — the suggestion, for example, that Philip Hammond’s Treasury has “not so far sought to punish the British people with an emergency budget” (the dig is obviously anti-George Osborne, but the less obvious anti-Hammond one lies in the “so far”). Note Johnson’s positioning of himself in the great narrative of the long European war. “I was there,” he tells us, when the British “hard ecu” was strangled; “I was there” when former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was ambushed at the Rome summit in 1990.
He remembers the humiliations when it was so often said in Brussels that “Britain protests — but in the end she always signs up.” He sounds like a decorated veteran telling tales of his old battles. Actually he was a journalist (for this paper). It still works, though. He saw it all: May didn’t. Johnson’s words are so written that the prime minister cannot sack him, discipline him or probably even have him denounced behind the hand. He does not trespass, except supportively, on any sensitive question in the negotiations which belong to David Davis, Britain’s Brexit Secretary, (another possible leadership contender).
He argues strongly, for example, for Britain’s rights in the matter which obsesses the EU above all — the €14 billion (Dh61,45 billion) Britain pays each year. How can May attack him for asserting that? Yet, he may be circumscribing her room for political manoeuvre by doing so. This, then, is Johnson’s leadership bid, couched in such a way that he need not unsay anything if it goes wrong. Will it work?
His timing is the opposite of that which he chose in the referendum, when his indecision was all but final, and he barely had time to campaign. He was the biggest beast to board the Leave ark, but also the last. This may have damaged his prospects in the leadership contest after the result. This time, he is getting in first, when everyone was planning to take the party conference next month quietly.
Now Johnson, who is far better with conference audiences than any other member of the Cabinet, is making the weather. It is certain that Boris will not endear himself to large numbers of parliamentary colleagues by what he has just done. Most of them are suspicious or jealous of him. Many will not welcome such drama at this tricky time.
His intervention will also incite his rivals to enter the fray, though it is hard to imagine what any of them could say to trump him. Perhaps their best bet will be to present themselves as safe pairs of hands, implying that Johnson is selfish and flaky. I also notice that the large new generation of Tory MPs from the 2015 and 2017 intakes is moving forward fast, and is clearly unimpressed by their elders and supposed betters in the Cabinet. A little-known, much younger candidate might appear.
As ever, the cravings of the Conservative Party need to be distinguished from those of the country. Would it really help, at this critical juncture, to place our future in Johnson’s hands? Would it be a case of the blond leading the blind? Would it force another election, thus risking ‘Prime Minister’ Corbyn?
On the other hand, Johnson would not be writing as if he is there were not a vacuum to fill. That vacuum is located in 10 Downing Street. Britons are living through a very strange passage in their island story.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Charles Moore has been editor of the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph. He is the authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher.