Will Boris Johnson be undone by his latest wheeze – a proposal to refuse the £39bn Brexit “divorce” payment until the EU agrees better departure terms for the UK?
Until now, the outspoken, gaffe-prone front-runner for the Tory leadership has conducted a surprisingly low-key and accident-free campaign. Learning from his failed bid to replace David Cameron in 2016, Boris has reportedly turned over a new leaf, working hard behind the scenes to meet and persuade even the most hostile Tory MPs, turning up on time and declining tempting opportunities to sound off on TV leadership debates being organised by the BBC, ITV and Sky, preferring instead to opine in print, which is easier for minders to control.
Which means that yesterday’s front page promise to hold back the ‘divorce’ payment unless EU leaders get back to the negotiating table is not just another wild, off-the-cuff empty boast by the Old Wild Johnson. No – this is the calculated Brexit strategy drawn up by the New Controlled Boris, or more likely the “wise” heads gathered round him. This is the fiendishly clever answer to the European Gordian Knot that transfixed Theresa May. A sword slicing straight through the thorny problems, complexities and extraneous details that bewitched May’s negotiating team for two long years.
Sufficiently cavalier to attract the un-caped crusaders in the European Research Group. Sufficiently untried to sound plausible to wobbly Remainers.
And just like the concocted formula about NHS savings that helped Boris win Brexit, a downright lie.
Of course, the former Foreign Secretary won’t face criminal prosecution for falsely claiming that £350 million a week would be diverted from EU payments into the NHS after Brexit. But he did make that claim and it is simply false. Just like the notion that a refusal to cough up cash will somehow force a new Brexit solution into being.
Why not? For one thing, his proposal isn’t new. Boris first suggested blocking British payments to the EU when he opposed Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement back in February. It didn’t unite MPs against the Prime Minister then, because refusing to honour what’s already agreed will hardly endear the British Government to the EU during trade talks or to other potential trade partners. The 39 billion Euro “departure tax” is payment for past decisions and the payment period is forty years not just 12 months. So Boris’ new “strategy” was crazy four months ago and has only become dodgier since. Now, EU leadership is in a state of flux after the recent elections, and there’s no clear figurehead to try and bully about. Summer is looming. EU member states are moving on. There’s no chance of forcing a rethink now.
And of course, even if most Tory MPs grudgingly back this “hardball mandate” if Boris is elected leader, the rest of the Commons is under no such compunction and will simply block the resulting no deal Brexit. Boris could stiffen resolve by threatening to dash the Conservative Party against the rocks with a general election. But in the wake of Labour’s Peterborough election success, the opinion poll lead enjoyed by the Brexit Party and the renewed challenge by the Lib Dems, it’s hard to see how that achieves anything but wholesale political suicide for the Conservative Party.
Still, if lying worked for Brexit, why shouldn’t it work for clinching the poisoned chalice of Tory leader? His weekend bragging; “in getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant,” smacks of the great showman turned supposed deal-maker Donald Trump. And that’s deliberate. After all Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Sunday paper has just endorsed both dangerous blonde bombshells.
Boris has new supporters though, like prominent Brexiteer Steve Baker, cabinet ministers James Brokenshire, Chris Grayling and Alun Cairns, former international development secretary Priti Patel and one-time leadership candidate James Cleverly. Whoop, whoop.
So, who wouldn’t buy the Boris package? Well, surprisingly enough, the sainted Ruth Davidson for one. This weekend, she endorsed Home Secretary Sajid Javid, a man known to Scots (if he’s known at all) as the new authority behind Britain’s racist and compassionless hostile environment policy. Now it seems he plans to spend hundreds of millions on a technological solution to the Irish border because it’s part of Britain’s “moral duty.” Well, well. The Scottish Tory leader says Javid’s working class background means he combines Conservatives values of aspiration with “vast experience of international business [and] an intimate knowledge of security arrangements.”
Such lofty overselling of a very underwhelming man and unnaturally stilted speaker might work if the leering grin of Nigel Farage wasn’t looming large over proceedings – but it is. Right now, few Tory voters give a damn about the future of the union or fair spending across the whole UK. And Ruth Davidson knows it. So, what is she playing at? Just last week she seemed to be cosying up to Boris – a man she recently described as one of “the wealthy, able to fall back on their pension pots and savings” in the event of a post Brexit meltdown.
By positioning herself behind Javid - a man who currently looks set to lose - is the Scottish Tory leader losing her touch, trying to prove her independence or perhaps preparing Scottish Tories for the oft-predicted breakaway from the UK party? Scots Secretary David Mundell has already said he won’t serve in a Johnson Government, and whilst he’s made more unfulfilled resignation threats than Michael Gove has snorted cocaine, this time he might just mean it.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart has also promised not to serve in a Boris-led government.
Tory MPs and party members may not rate such old-fashioned principles but the bookies show Stewart as neck and neck with Boris amongst voters. And at some point in the next few weeks, that reality may start the pendulum swinging against the Tory leader who was only ever going to be stopped by one person -- himself.