Boris Johnson: Inside the Tent and Pissing in it Anyway

So obvious was Boris Johnson’s intervention in the Brexit debate that nobody bothered to ask “What did he mean by that?” As the foreign secretary’s Daily Telegraph article landed, the immediate reaction was - without question - that it was a challenge to Theresa May.

Humiliated by his great office and a toxic political figure, that Johnson would do something was inevitable. Rumours abound that May is confident enough to demote him. The most that can be said for his outburst is that he is less easy to provoke than Donald Trump. It is to set the bar pretty low.

So many nails have been put in his political coffin that it is impossible to say this is another one. However, the article’s crassness and cack-handedness surely rules him out as anything but joke candidate in the Tory succession.

On Friday, there was an attempted terrorist attack at Parson’s Green tube station. Thoughts immediately turned to whether there will be another spate of attacks. Reports showed injured people in ambulances. The threat level was raised to critical. At this moment, the foreign secretary starts to lob political bombs at his boss.

There is something pathetic (and I use, as he would approve, the word in its archaic sense) about Johnson’s actions. Like Trump, Johnson has narcissistic tendencies: his was an infantile cry for attention.

For a senior minister (who has some responsibility for national security) to be reduced to playing petty politics is a sign of his weakness not his strength. The timing was unfortunate. Johnson had no idea that there was to be a bomb threat. Luck is a political commodity and he has simply run out of it.

JOHNSON SHOWED WHY HE CANNOT LEAD THE TORY PARTY

For all his supposed charms as a writer, there is little charm to the article’s politics. It contains the same gung-ho Brexitism that Johnson displayed with his characteristic myopic bravura during the referendum campaign. After ritual homage to Remainers, he then castigated those who have “split allegiances”. If he is testing young Britons with a choice between his vision of Brexit and a European Union they have grown up with, he might be bitterly disappointed.

There is a great chance that Brexit will toxify the Tories among younger voters. It was the young who took their majority away from them. The pig-headed insistence on pursuing not only Brexit but Brexit in this Norman Tebbit manner will further alienate them. In a single sentence, Johnson showed why he cannot lead the Tory party or the country to anything but ruin.

Not content with such political clumsiness, he reminded people of Vote Leave’s duplicitous £350m to the NHS pledge. It was a promise that the campaign had no right to make: they were not an opposition party campaigning for government. They made pledges they could not be sure they would be able to deliver.

The figure itself is dishonest, and Johnson's use condemned by the UK Statistics Authority. Britain is a net contributor to the EU, but the £350 million figure includes monies given back to the UK in its rebate and in UK investment. The idea was cruelly effective in the heat of the referendum campaign but was one of the most dishonest assurances of modern politics.

Johnson reclaimed the toxic pledge like a man putting a millstone around his own neck.

he does not have the seriousness the country needs, the ability to grapple with complexities that Brexit demands or the electoral appeal the next Tory leader must display

The impetus for the foreign secretary’s intervention is a matter for psychologists. It is interesting to note that in ConservativeHome’s Cabinet League Table, he is only marginally more popular than Jeremy Hunt. It must rile when there is an even more absurd rival for the affections of Conservative members as the next leader. In truth, Jacob Rees-Mogg is beginning to have more credibility.

Of course, Johnson has supporters in Cabinet - those whose hands were equally dipped in the unscrupulous blood of Brexit promises; he does also - as an ex-journalist - have supporters in the press as the chorus of approval from the Telegraph showed. What his article proved though was that he does not have the seriousness the country needs, the ability to grapple with complexities that Brexit demands or the electoral appeal the next Tory leader must display.

Michael Foot once called the Tory Party the Stupid Party. Perhaps one man who likes to think of himself as one of letters is attempting to prove a true one correct. If so, it is a noble ambition.

At best, this cry for relevance was a coded plea not to move him from his post. If so, it will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister responds. I doubt that she will be happy that the relative calm of the summer months was disrupted by a test to her authority on Brexit purity by a naked opportunist.

There was another holder of his office who challenged a sitting premier via his party’s house journal. In all likelihood Boris Johnson, who withdrew from the Tory leadership when it got difficult rather than fight, will show the same courage as David Miliband. If so, he will demonstrate his own cowardice as well as the prime minister’s impotence.

As such, all he has done is to parade his party’s problems, not show them how to solve them. They won’t show him any gratitude.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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