Scots Tory MP Ross Thomson’s claim that the UK is set to be ‘vassal state’ under Theresa May’s Brexit plan looks like pitch to join a future Cabinet under Boris Johnson, writes John McLellan.
The former editor of this newspaper, Magnus Linklater, must shake his head when he sees Boris Johnson bumbling purposefully onto the next publicity stunt, remembering the time when he defeated Bojo in one of the more bizarre elections Edinburgh has witnessed.
In 2006, Linklater’s 3,052 votes were enough to see off Johnson’s challenge to be rector of Edinburgh University, a bid no-one quite understood given the 41-year-old Johnson was already the high-profile MP for Henley and shadow Higher Education spokesman, and had no known connection with the university.
Instrumental in mounting Johnson’s Edinburgh challenge was my old chum Brian Monteith, the then Tory MSP who was to re-emerge at the heart of the Leave.EU PR operation. Even an inveterate plotter as Brian couldn’t have been preparing Bozza for Brexit 12 years ago, and the suspicion was it was just a profile-raiser. It worked as long as the campaign lasted, with a beer-drenching the highlight of a raucous campaign, but the PR bubble burst the minute he lost. In fact he came third, with Linklater second to the victorious Green MSP Mark Ballard.
It might also have worked as a publicity stunt to attract more English public school types without enough A levels for Oxbridge or Durham, but Johnson has barely been seen in the capital since.
His two terms as Mayor of London were regarded as a success, largely due to his flamboyant fronting of the London Olympics, but then came his calculating, cynical approach to the EU referendum. The twists of fate which followed the result saw his prime ministerial ambitions raised, dashed and then revived by Theresa May as her Foreign Secretary.
Working out Johnson’s motivation has never been too difficult for those who know him well and selfless service has never been high on the list, but few have described his character with such elegant venom as another who resuscitated his career, former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings who hired him after the young reporter was sacked by The Times for fabricating stories in 1988.
“It is a common mistake to suppose Johnson a nice man,” wrote Hastings in, appropriately, The Times this week. “Johnson’s glittering intelligence is not matched by self-knowledge ... He is a man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple. It has been a misfortune for Britain that through two years when diplomacy has been critically important we have been represented abroad by a jester.”
One who would whole-heartedly agree is Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson who all but called him a liar as the EU referendum reached its climax and has followed it up with regular jibes ever since. She was one of the first out the blocks from outside the Cabinet this week to support the Prime Minister after Johnson’s resignation over the Chequers Brexit plan.
But, at the same time, fundamentalist Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan-Smith were preparing amendments to the Customs Bill which, when it comes up for debate in the Commons on Monday, could yet rip the guts out the White Paper which followed the Chequers plan.
So what are we humble foot soldiers, the Conservative councillors and activists who must take all this out to the public, to make of it all? With a subject so vast boiled down to one word “Leave”, no party has found unanimous agreement within their ranks about what it should mean, no matter what they might tell the public. Even First Minister Nicola Sturgeon knows there are 400,000 SNP supporters like Jim Sillars who want as little to do with Brussels as they do London.
The Prime Minister’s responsibility is to construct a viable way forward for the negotiations which honours the referendum result but addresses the realpolitik of the situation, which is what she appeared to have done. Not the finished article, but real progress nonetheless,
Good deal, bad deal or no deal (and every trader knows the other side must think you will walk away, no matter the consequences), what the poor bloody Conservative infantry need more than anything else is a sense of purpose and direction, a solid position we can defend and promote. Finally, last weekend we got one, until the egos started to land.
The alternative to Ruth Davidson’s call to put “shoulders to the wheel” in support of the Chequers Plan is to play into the hands of the opposition. And guess what, as two party vice-chairs flounced out in protest, by the end of the week Labour had nudged ahead in the UK polls.
Here, after we have fought so hard and effectively to get this far in Scotland, up chirruped Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson. “The Brexit plan opening offer appears so diluted that we would be a vassal state,” he said, as if his seat was a UKIP target. Then, in what looked like a pitch to be Scotland Secretary in PM Bojo’s Barmy Cabinet, he went on to praise David Davis and Johnson for “standing by their principles”.
In the great game of Brexit, councillors like me are but bystanders like everyone else. Others are supposed to be looking after high affairs of state on our behalf as we get on with trying to get the roads fixed and the bins emptied, the licence and planning applications processed, the schools built.
The aim for Team May, if I may be so bold, should be to get Brexit over the line, and the word from people a lot closer to this than me beyond the Conservative Party is that the key principles laid out in the Chequers blue-print, like customs alignment for manufactured goods and the end of free movement, are very close to doing just that. But by not seeking to answer every question now, detailed sector-by-sector negotiations can go into a phase where new relationships are forged at the right pace for each.
The whips will be working overtime to avoid a defeat on Monday, but I will leave the final word to former Edinburgh councillor and MEP Struan Stevenson, whose poetry on Twitter took a slightly different approach to Ross Thomson:
“An MP whose vision was blurred,
Was an expert on polishing t**d.
But his race to be crowned
Left him running aground
And looking faintly absurd...”
And, in any case, as they say, you can’t polish a t**d, but you can roll it in glitter...”