Boris Johnson remains one of the Tory party’s few big beasts. He is relatively popular with Tory members, who are a diminishing and older crowd, and even if the feel-good vibe he helped generate around London 2012 is gone, with many liberal Remainers blaming him and his bus for Brexit, he still has high name recognition and a dash of panache. Boris is still one of the few leading politicians who can disrupt the British news narrative with a single piece of journalism, as he has demonstrated this weekend with the publication of an essay mapping out his vision of post-Brexit Britain.
The timing is odd, in several senses. Didn’t he think it might be better to spike it when on Friday there was a terror attack and the threat level went up? Plus he’s been busy all week dealing (rather well) with the aftermath of the terrible hurricane which hit British overseas territories, hasn’t he? Any time on the plane there was presumably best spent reading briefing papers and thinking, rather than writing or rewriting essays which could only (contrary to hilarious protestations) be seen as a leadership bid or move against Theresa May. This week she will go to Florence, to make a speech designed to break the Brexit impasse at a critical moment.
What seems to have happened with Boris’s intervention ahead of that speech is a classic cock-up. The Foreign Secretary was due to make his own Brexit speech last Monday, but it clashed with the vote in the Commons and didn’t happen. Boris’s speech writer is David Blair, formerly of the Daily Telegraph, incidentally. Johnson is a former star columnist of the Telegraph and a leading figure in the Telegraph family. This speech – BoJo’s Brilliant Brexit Vision For Britain – has been sitting around needing a home.
And so word makes its way across to Telegraph HQ. Rather long, old boy, but it’s there if the Telegraph needs it. Excitement builds among the small group in the know. The text is pored over. The Tory tealeaves are read. This is a leadership bid thingy on the eve of party conference and May’s make or break speech in Florence, isn’t it? Supporting pieces are commissioned and built around the central idea – Boris is running, Boris is running, here we go! – and it is all set up ready for page one and so on. The grandfather in the Telegraph family and usually a Boris sceptic, former editor Charles Moore, is even called in to give it all the stamp of Tory tribal approval. It may be time, he suggests in his Saturday column, to start preparing for new leadership under Boris.
Was this a carefully planned exercise on the part of the Foreign Secretary? Be serious. This looks like a bit of a shambles. It is, after all, Boris. He even made amusing attempts on Saturday morning to reverse ferret and stress that this move is supportive of the Prime Minister.
What of the content of Boris’s article? As someone living in London I’m now pretty much immune to visionary statements about the future from Boris. That’s because his track record is so mixed, to put it politely. This is obvious to anyone trying trying to get round gridlocked London, dodging the appalling air pollution, and gazing down from the top deck of a bus at empty cycle superhighways. Lots of us curse the former Mayor of London at moments like that. He oversaw many of the changes which have made London increasingly unliveable, to say nothing of the atrociously poor quality of architecture he allowed to be built. The London skyline looks wounded, scarred and cheapened, littered as it is with weird, vulgar skyscrapers that have crowded out interesting tall buildings such as the Gherkin.
On Brexit he is at least trying to offer something beyond dull, technocratic ministerial talk, say his supporters (not as numerous as they once were.) Perhaps, but the context in which this has to be seen is that this week, on Friday, the Prime Minister needs to make a successful speech that is genuinely historic and groundbreaking in its impact.
Speeches hardly ever matter. Us journalists were forever saying – in the 1990s and 2000s at the height of the choreographed approach to politics – that one leader or another had to make the speech of his or her life, usually at a party conference, to rescue the situation or see off a rival. A lot of it – Iraq aside – seems very silly in retrospect. Compared to what faces the country now, in negotiating a successful Brexit or not, the endless arguments over Foundation Hospitals during the Blair era look mundane.
The Brexit talks are stuck and neither side knows quite what to do next. Partly this is because the EU insisted – against British advice – on a daft sequencing in which money has to be agreed before anything else substantial gets discussed. May also did not reach out to the EU after she became Prime Minister, on EU citizens rights and on pointing out the UK cannot leave Europe. There is more to Europe than the EU. And we want to help on security. We like our neighbours.
Looking for a fresh start, the Prime Minister’s team is currently wrestling with how to pitch it on Friday, in a way that satisfies the various voices in the cabinet (hence Boris trying to show he still matters) and does enough to appeal to the more sensible EU leaders, such as chief negotiator Barnier and the imaginative President Macron of France.
Luckily, there is a way through, if the Prime Minister’s team can be humble enough to take a pointer from a former Brexit minister who resigned from the government in June. Read what he said and they’ll see it mapped out. In the Lords this week, Lord Bridges made his first intervention since leaving DEXEU. He also wrote a piece for Reaction explaining his suggested approach. After endless arguing and wearisome Remainers versus Leaver fighting, here was a crisply expressed and refreshing explanation of how to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. It goes something like this:
1) Transition from March 2019 lasting two years looking very much like EU membership, but presumably we lose our MEPs and representation in the institutions. The EU gets its money each year, meaning it has no hole in its budget while its budget round finishes. British business, and EU business, notices no difference and has time to prepare.
2) Accept it is not feasible to sign a full deal next year. There is too much to discuss. So, agree “heads of terms” in every area and then set up working groups of negotiators to work through each one. A few might – might – take longer than the transition period to finalise but they can be parked. Line up all the joint bodies and EU programmes into which the UK might want to pay and which the EU might want Britain in – on science etc – and work through them. All building towards a final deal that can be added to later.
3) Leave properly – the ECJ, single market and customs union, for staying in means Brexit does not really happen – in one go at the end of the two year transition but with future payments attached to programmes both sides can agree on and a trading arrangement which is not “frictionless” but introduces as little friction as possible.
This approach gets round Article 50 having been constructed by the EU to make it almost impossible to leave so no-one would try, until Britain did. Such a plan also gives business one switch to prepare for at the end of the transition. Not two. Presented with some pro-European conciliation it could work, if May has it in her.
If you actively want a hardcore Brexit, customs arrangements and all manner of other joint programmes collapsing in March 2019, then you might howl with rage. If you are an ultra-remainer trying to Stop Brexit then you don’t like anything constructive and aren’t anyway looking for a way out other than the UK humiliatingly begging its way back in to Jean-Claude Juncker’s EU, which is not going to happen.
If you are in the sensible majority that either wants Brexit to happen or accepts it will, then it comes down to Theresa May taking the bridge proposed by Bridges.