The ill-fated decision to hold a premature election in June this year hangs over every Cabinet meeting, and with Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority critically diminished, her supremely talented Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has begun snapping at her ankles.
As May was set to deliver a landmark speech in Florence to outline her vision for Brexit, Johnson stole her thunder by offering his own vision in a 4,000-word essay in the Daily Telegraph. He insisted that the UK could be bullish about Brexit, refusing to pay for access to the single market and not needing to replicate EU law in British law to maintain regulatory alignment with the internal market.
The timing of the piece was seen as a clear challenge to May’s authority, in some circles even a pitch for leadership of the party. The prime minister, who had once gone to great lengths to contain the ambitions of the dynamic foreign secretary, showed a complete inability to respond confidently to his open challenge.
Telling journalists simply that “Boris is Boris” illustrated how her election defeat continues to haunt her administration, and that she is the “shrunken” figure Johnson has privately referred to. His reaction was to be expected. There remains an incredible degree of confusion surrounding the UK’s Brexit plans, and May’s limited mandate has left the government rudderless.
To Johnson, champion of the campaign to leave the EU — who had claimed that Britain would be able to regain her place in the world — noises from the Cabinet that the relationship with the bloc will change very little must be unsettling.
In addition, he has been stung by a series of well-briefed newspaper columns criticizing his record as foreign secretary, as though May is preparing to remove the largest personality from her Cabinet, and in many respects the most fiendishly intelligent.
The growing chasm between No. 10 and the Foreign Office reflects the divided nature of the Cabinet. The resignation of Brexit ministers, and curtailing the power of the Department for Exiting the EU, reflect power struggles within the government. The free movement of people — the price of single-market membership — is the one concession that all government members agree cannot be made.
But a growing number of Conservatives are proposing an exit strategy that would involve Britain ending free movement, but doing all else to stay in the EU’s internal market. This would mean that the UK would not diverge on issues without prior agreement with the EU, a state of affairs entirely removed from the independence on economic and judicial affairs that Brexit campaigners had envisioned.
The group of soft Brexiteers is led by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. Its determination to steer the course of negotiations could split the Conservative Party on Europe. In this context, Johnson has been actively sidelined, unable to use his obvious talents to build strong relationships for the UK’s future.
There remains an incredible degree of confusion surrounding the UK’s Brexit plans, and Prime Minister Theresa May’s limited mandate has left the government rudderless.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In some cases, he has been totally cut out from key discussions. No. 10 recently issued a call for an important meeting on Brexit in the full knowledge that Johnson would be overseas and thus unable to influence proceedings.
May has always respected the will of those who voted to leave the EU, and has focused efforts on delivering an equitable Brexit. But with her authority weakened, she could be cornered into reaching a deal that does not offer the independence from the EU that many had hoped for. It is therefore only right that Johnson remain vocal in his suggestions, so as to limit No. 10’s ability to change its mind.
But such public machination is dangerous. Former Conservative leader William Hague has warned that ministers’ responsibility should be to maintain a strong economy without a parliamentary majority, a difficult task without the specter of Brexit.
He also warned that 15 months since the referendum result, ministers are making the mistake of negotiating publically on the best course to take. This further undermines the government and seriously weakens the hand of its negotiators in Brussels.
Europe has divided Conservative governments for decades, ending the careers of three prime ministers. Should May lack the authority to steer the UK through tough negotiations, she should make way for a stronger leader.
At this stage, she must find a compromise between the two viewpoints in her party, rather than making short-term alliances to bolster her position with one camp at the expense of isolating the other. If she continues to do that, the next prime minister will not be her, Johnson or Scottish firebrand Ruth Davidson — it will be Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid