Neither TCW co-editor Kathy Gyngell, I suspect, nor I imagined when we debated ‘Boris’s resignation speech – did he flunk It?’ a mere seven or so weeks ago that its subject would be embroiled in quite the degree of controversy which enveloped him over the weekend. There was the fallout from revelations about his latest amours and subsequent divorce announcement, and then some provocative language in his Mail On Sunday article attacking Theresa May’s justifiably much-criticised and thoroughly debunked Chequers Plan for a Soft-Remain Brexit-In-Name-Only.
Yet this alleged scandal has an artificial, almost manufactured, feel about it. It isn’t really about Boris’s chaotic private life, or his undoubted character flaws, much less about some ill-judged phraseology in a newspaper article.
It’s merely the latest escalation of the Johnson vs May war, Boris vs Doris, and of the ‘Conservative’ Party’s internal struggle between the advocates of a clean-break Brexit and the more numerous – in some cases Brexit-ambivalent but nakedly careerist – supporters of an ultra-soft departure that’s more spin than substance.
First, Boris’s serial philandering, and the fact that he and his wife have for some months lived in effect separate lives, is hardly a state secret, though less well known outside the Westminster bubble. In some ways it’s arguably among the least of the faults, such as a lack of attention to detail, vaulting personal ambition, compulsive attention-seeking and a sometimes cavalier regard for accuracy which make him such a dubious leadership proposition.
Yet the whiff of hypocrisy in some of the Conservatives’ pearls-clutching reaction to it borders on the nauseating, coming from a party which has spent much of the past two decades enthusiastically supporting, if not imitating, much of the cultural-Left’s attack on the institution of the family. And all in a futile attempt to counter the ‘nasty party’ image. Remind me who coined that phrase?
Secondly, much of the confected outrage about Boris’s Mail on Sunday article has to rely for its impact on a blatant misquote. He did not, as widely but inaccurately reported, liken Theresa May to a suicide bomber. What he did say was that, in proposing exit from the European Union on the basis of May’s Chequers Plan, ‘we have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier’.
Given the extent to which, under Chequers, EU rules and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would continue to hold sway over large areas of economic activity, despite the UK’s no longer being a member of the EU, this is a fair point. But it’s also one which May’s No 10 team would definitely prefer was not widely understood.
Despite the EU’s effective rejection of the Chequers Plan, May’s increasingly bunker-like No 10 are heavily invested in it. Remember, it was they who put it together in a secret backstairs operation in which May’s own Cabinet was kept in the dark, and the Department for Exiting the European Union was cynically used as camouflage. Hence the faux-indignation by May’s outriders in the Brexit-In-Name-Only wing of the ‘Conservative’ Party at Boris’s laying bare its manifest constitutional concessions.
Next, it was revealed – or at least claimed – in yesterday’s Sunday Times that a dossier of Johnson’s indiscretions had long since been prepared in No 10, ready for deployment against him in the event that he launched a leadership bid. May’s No 10, I’d suggest, is in paranoid-panic mode, especially since the news broke that Boris is to address a 1,000-strong rally on the fringe at the ‘Conservative’ Party conference on Tuesday October 2.
That’s the day before May’s speech to conference. Given the utter disaster that was her conference speech last year, on top of her normal charisma-free, robotic delivery in contrast to Boris’s oratory – at which, for all his faults, he excels – it will be the talking-point of the conference and set such a high bar for May’s own speech the next day that she is bound to fail.
So it’s not difficult to see why a long-anticipated and inevitably high-profile divorce announcement and a luridly worded section in an otherwise unremarkable newspaper article would have been seen in the No 10 bunker as a golden opportunity to push the nascent Stop-Boris-and-Discredit-Brexit operation into higher gear.
Incidentally, as an operation to discredit an opponent and potential leadership challenger, and of which May is the beneficiary, the similarities with how Andrea Leadsom came to be removed as a challenger to May’s unelected and unopposed coronation in mid-2016 are intriguing.
None of this is to absolve Johnson of the faults which make him unsuitable and risky leadership material: I’m on record at TCW calling him ‘a dilettante, a gadfly, and prone to indiscretions’, after all.
But it does weaken the likelihood of an alternative to May’s disastrous BRINO Chequers Plan gaining traction, even though Boris himself appears uncertain of which one he favours.
In the past week or so, it’s emerged that the three leading Tory Brexiteers, namely David Davis, Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, have all favoured exiting the EU on what’s known as the ‘Canada Plus’ option. This isn’t ideal, for all sorts of reasons, not least its implications for Northern Ireland’s economy and its cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland, but compared with Chequers, it delivers more on the instruction handed to the Government by the electorate.
May, of course, is dead set against it. The real story of the Boris imbroglio of the past week is that it risks strengthening her hand, against his and those of his less compulsively mercurial colleagues, in the battle over which vision of Brexit is to prevail. Against that, the brouhaha surrounding Boris, his libido, and his leadership ambitions are a noisy, but ultimately peripheral, sideshow.