On September 22nd Theresa May made what she regarded as an important speech on Brexit. She was obliged to give this speech because the Brexit negotiations have collapsed, due to the inability of the UK side to present a clear negotiating position.
The speech was so important in her own eyes that she travelled all the way to Florence to make it – though in a church, not a government building. However not one European politician or official turned up to witness it, much like May’s speech to the United Nations earlier that week, which had been delivered to a half-empty room, most unusually for a British Prime Minister. As May has refused to address the European Parliament on these issues she should have expected this reaction, but apparently she still doesn’t see that her every move is not automatically respected because it is hers.
What did she say? As ever, practically nothing. Reaction has focussed on her claim that she wants a two year transition period in which the UK still has access to the Single Market and is bound by EU regulations. In other words, that the UK does not actually leave the EU, though she still insists it will.
But most of May’s speech was mere flannel – she insisted that the future arrangement with the EU shouldn’t follow an existing model but be “something creative”, and that EU states somehow share the responsibility for getting the UK the deal it wants. This is politicalspeak for, “I haven’t a clue what to do, please save my embarrassment”.
Predictably, the EU has responded by saying that it hopes these sentiments will be given concrete form in the new round of negotiations. But it also obvious that it doesn’t really care what the UK does, as it holds all the cards and the UK has no way of changing that.
If the speech was designed to mend relations with the EU, it failed. It did nothing to clarify what the UK would actually do in the next round of negotiations. It offered nothing except a desperate plea for the EU to get the UK get out of the mess it has created for itself, with the pound falling sharply and a multitude of businesses leaving because they primarily want to trade with the EU, not the UK.
But if anyone has emerged enhanced from the Florence speech it is the one person no one wanted to gain anything from it – May’s Foreign Secretary, the irrepressible Boris Johnson. The man who has built a journalistic career on insulting Europeans, and most other people, and would not still be in a job if the Prime Minister had any authority whatsoever.
After his latest stunt, which was widely interpreted as a leadership bid, there was considerable comment that he was finally finished. Instead, he has inherited former minister Kenneth Baker’s title of the Torys’ Teflon Man – no matter what you throw at him, it never sticks, and he is only encouraged to pull more stunts, no matter what the consequences are for his party, his government or anyone else.
Though May’s speech put clear water between the government and Johnson, who is supposed to be one of its senior members, BoJo the Clown is still a cabinet minister. He can resign over May’s “soft Brexit” if he feels it suits him, but has shown cannot be pushed. This demonstrates the Conservative Party is still run by rabid Brexiteers, and that everyone else is too scared to confront them.
The worse things get, the more difficult it will be for the government which created the mess to change its position without destroying itself in the process. This will make Johnson, darling of those who still believe in Brexit, the monarch of all he surveys, as the only one who supported the referendum and then objected to the steps the government took afterwards. He will have deflected blame for his own actions onto everyone but himself, and demonstrated leadership credentials simply by exposing the fact that everyone seems powerless to stop him.
Foot in everyone’s else’s mouth
Johnson has a column in the Daily Telegraph, and did before he joined the government. When Mayor of London he was obliged to admit this earns him around half a million pounds a year. When you get paid that amount to spout xenophobic drivel you are going to think that you can do nothing wrong, and if the government you serve doesn’t like it they can “get stuffed”, to use Boris-type language.
In this column he resurrected one of the central claims of the Leave campaign: that the UK pays 350 million GBP to the EU every week and that that money could go to the NHS. The day after the referendum, other Leave figures – who unlike Boris had campaigned to leave the EU for many years, not reversed their position the week before the referendum campaign began – distanced themselves from this claim, as it was factually incorrect. They even tried to say they had never said it, despite it being emblazoned all over the side of the big red bus the Vote Leave campaign used.
Everyone on the Leave side was hoping this factoid had been forgotten, not simply because the UK doesn’t pay the EU that much but because no more money has been promised to the NHS post-Brexit, and hundreds of its EU national staff are leaving and seemingly not being replaced by British workers. But Boris resurrected it because he has a problem in Cabinet – the rest can see the way things are going, and want to change course despite the “hard Brexit” element in their own party and the press, but Boris still thinks he can gain by hitching his star to such people, and wants to be backed by them, not the rest of the party.
In this, he is actually behaving sensibly. The newspaper magnates who pay his wages have continued to aggressively promote Brexit, so he might lose his job if he softens his own position now.
But as a minister of the crown, he is supposed to serve the country above all. You don’t do that by undermining your own government’s position by promoting lies, and remaining a member of that government.
Boris had not cleared his article with May before publishing it, and she soon distanced herself from it. However she did so by using one of her customary meaningless platitudes, simply saying “Boris is Boris”. So is this conduct now acceptable for a government minister, though it has never been before? Or acceptable for Johnson alone? As ever, there is no detail, just the assumption that because Theresa is who she is the plebs must just accept her opinion, without her needing to justify it.
More serious however was the intervention of Sir David Norgrove, Head of the UK Statistics Authority. He pointed out that as the 350 million a day figure was wrong, Johnson was misusing official statistics. Johnson responded by saying he had been misrepresented, but then repeated the claim that the UK would have control over an extra 350 million a week and that it could go to the NHS, which went further than what Norgrove had accused him of saying. This despite the fact that his claim contradicts the government’s own figures, which he is obliged to accept if he wants to remain part of the government.
The day after the Brexit referendum David Cameron resigned, whistling happily, and Johnson looked scared to death because he had never actually wanted Leave to win. His aim had been to fall just short, and thus create a substantial body of dissatisfied public opinion behind him, which he could then use to twist his party towards him and take over from Cameron.
Cameron thought, as did most commentators, that if Brexit wasn’t seen to be working Johnson would get the blame and would be finished. It was a big surprise when May appointed him Foreign Secretary, but it was believed that she was putting the Brexiteers in positions where they would take all the flak in order to destroy them. But this was before the general election May called, in which she was exposed as clueless and robotic, once again making Johnson look better by comparison.
The worse Johnson behaves, the more things fall into his lap. Kim Jong-un must be taking notes. Donald Trump might also be wondering why Johnson can get away with it in office, while he is finding it increasingly difficult to do so.
Same Boris, different day
Boris Johnson is one of those people who have to be centre of attention wherever he goes. This probably isn’t wilful, just an innate characteristic.
When first elected to parliament he tried the same tricks, making outrageous statements in the hope that the more people noticed him, the further he would rise. When those rebounded on him he left the Conservative front bench and then parliament in disgrace, despite the fact his old Oxford and Bullingdon Club chum Cameron was party leader.
An opportunity opened up for him when the Conservatives realised that they couldn’t beat Ken Livingstone, the popular Mayor of London who had once been seen as unelectably Hard Left, without pitting another media personality against him. Unlike Livingstone, Johnson was much more media than politics, but Livingstone’s unusual time had gone and BoJo won the day. He was then re-elected in 2012 when Labour had the same problem, having no one else with the same profile except past history Livingstone.
While still Mayor, he gained a new seat in parliament in 2015. The suspicion is that this was only allowed because other members of his family were around to look after him: his younger brother Jo had been elected in 2010, and is now a more junior government minister, whilst his father Stanley had tried to succeed him in his old seat but subsequently, and ironically, won a seat in the European Parliament.
This time his buffoonery has worked, so far. But this also sends the EU a message. The UK thinks insulting the EU over and over again is more acceptable than what ultimately did Johnson in the first time, abusing the natives of Liverpool. This is hardly going to help in the negotiations, but those are for responsible people, and Johnson tries his hardest to convince the world that does not include him.
May is also allowing him to get away with it because another Tory has been getting all the publicity recently. Jacob Rees-Mogg, another prominent Brexit supporter, is being openly touted as a future party leader and Prime Minister, despite the fact Theresa insists she is not going to resign. Rees-Mogg represents the party’s traditions, but that is exactly the problem.
Like Tories of the pre-Margaret Thatcher era, Rees-Mogg believes in traditional values and families and opposes same sex marriage and abortion. But he also behaves as if he regards poverty and unemployment as punishments for not being traditional enough, and that the state should magnify those punishments. The Tories still won’t publicly accept that that has been their outlook for the past 40 years, and Theresa at least doesn’t want Rees-Mogg embodying it more than any other leader.
As soon as Johnson’s Daily Telegraph article was published it was assumed it had been provoked by Rees-Mogg getting more publicity. This may be true, but it does also help Theresa by throwing another possible candidate, who many do not trust, into the equation. As she has demonstrated, she will do anything to stay in power for as long as she can, and whatever Boris may do, if he helps her see off another contender he will still be a valued member of her inner ministerial circle.
Loose cannon with others’ rockets
Now the Brexit negotiations can restart. But they will have no relevance whatever to what happens in either the EU or UK. May has had to abandon her previous position, of either hard Brexit or no deal, simply because the process of leaving is so damn complicated she can’t do it, or gain any benefit from it. The EU is already brokering new deals with countries which don’t seem to care that the UK will not be part of this market in future, while the UK, which said it was leaving to gain greater access to these markets, is being pushed further to the back of the queue.
What happens to the UK will depend on how Johnson is handled. Getting rid of him gave him a new opportunity, exposing him to public glare has done the same. Simply ignoring him isn’t an option, because he holds the levers of a vast self-publicity machine. He will always be able to get himself on more front pages than the Prime Minister, whoever that may be.
Whatever Donald Trump has done policy-wise, his presidency has so far resulted in the US losing credibility in the world. This could be ascribed to prejudice amongst the political class against a reality TV star with no political background. But unlike some others who entered politics from nowhere, he hasn’t been able to turn this around.
Plenty of people want to turn round the alienation Johnson is imposing on his country, and most of his own party. But he is now making all UK policy all about him. Theresa has felt the need to tell the world “I’m not Boris”. She isn’t The Abominable Snowman either, but would she feel the need to say it?
If Boris’ attention-grabbing stunts succeed in making him UK Prime Minister it will mean the end of politics based on ideology or seeking to do good. It will all be about how you can make the entertainment mechanism work. The UK has a tradition of joke candidates and parties who treat politics as entertainment, but they don’t get elected. If the UK government wants to respect “the will of the people”, as it claims, it will soon realise that stopping Johnson, rather than proceeding with Brexit, is the only honest way of doing it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.