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When your enemies insist you stay

One of the ways you know you are living through a crisis is when satire offers a more accurate picture than news.  This was particularly true yesterday when the satirical website News Thump published a piece that told us everything we need to know about the antics of UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

The headline – Boris Johnson running out of ideas for how to get himself sacked – pretty much sums it up:

“’Boris is in a tricky position,’ we were told by Conservative insiders.

“’He needs to get out of being foreign secretary before Brexit goes to shit as he doesn’t want to have to carry the can for it.

“But if he resigns he’ll be seen as a quitter and it’ll screw his chances.

“So his only option is to act like a proper twat and hope it gets him fired’.”

The background to this sorry saga is far less amusing.  Johnson, whose quest for power knows no bounds, used the 2016 EU referendum largely as a means of furthering his own career.  Former Prime Minister, David Cameron had called the vote as a means of strengthening his own hand by silencing the anti-EU wing of the Tory party.  Johnson, by contrast, saw his best chance of challenging Cameron coming from championing the anti-EU Tories.  Both men, however, were clear about the outcome of the referendum.  The polls were clear.  Britain would vote to remain in the EU.  Cameron’s position would be strengthened in the short term, but Johnson hoped to emerge as the defeated hero who put principle before pragmatism.  This is why Johnson – who is widely believed to have swung the vote in favour of leaving the EU – looked so depressed when the result was announced.

The British people refused to go along with the script.  A combination of xenophobic voters in the Tory shires and devastated ex-industrial workers in former Labour towns delivered a narrow vote in favour of walking out of the EU.  Cameron flounced out, leaving Johnson to clear up a mess of his own making.  But Johnson had no plan.  Within hours the empty promises about money for the NHS and trade deals with Britain’s former empire unravelled.  Finally, Johnson’s “friend” Michael Gove ended the charade by stabbing Johnson in the back.

With Johnson out of the picture, the lack of competence at the top of a divided Tory party was plain for all to see.  Only Theresa May – who had diligently sat on the fence during the referendum – appeared to possess the leadership qualities needed to see Britain through the biggest crisis since the Wehrmacht turned up on the north French coast in June 1940.

This was wishful thinking, of course.  Too many Tories projected the phantom of their beloved St Margaret of Finchley onto the hapless May.  But May is neither a Thatcher nor a Churchill.  She is a ditherer who has changed her mind on policy so often that the term “U-turn” is no longer sufficient.

For all that, however, May made a single astute political move – to put three of the most prominent anti-EU Tories in charge of overseeing Brexit.  David Davis would oversee the negotiations, Liam Fox would negotiate new trading arrangements, and Johnson would oversee foreign affairs.  This move bound the fortunes of these three potential political opponents to May’s own.

Had Theresa May won the snap election in June (another of her U-turns by the way) Boris Johnson’s political career would have been over.  May would be bolstered by a fresh intake of 50-75 new Tory MPs; all owing their allegiance to her.  It didn’t work out that way.

Once again, the British people refused to go along with the script.  In another display of what economist Mark Blyth has labelled “Global Trumpism,” a large part of the section of the electorate that usually doesn’t bother voting (particularly the young) turned out for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.  With the help of some truly inept campaigning by “Team May,” a 20 percent Tory lead in the polls at the start of the campaign was whittled down to zero by Election Day.  Instead of delivering 50 shiny new Tory MPs, the election had produced 50-100 disgruntled ones whose supposedly safe seats had become marginal in the course of just a few weeks.

The Tory anger was palpable.  Mrs May clearly had to go.  But as the sun rose on 9 June, it was evident that there was no alternative Prime Minister waiting in the wings.  With the Tories profoundly divided over Brexit, and with each wing of the party determined to have one of their own take over as leader, the only possible means of avoiding a split and forming a minority government was for May to stay on.

The corollary, of course, is that Johnson and his fellow “Brexiteers” have to remain in charge of the dog’s breakfast that the negotiations with the EU27 are rapidly becoming.  For the Brexiteers, the “hard Brexit” position set out by Johnson is actually correct.  The only way that Britain can leave the EU is to simply walk away.  It will come at a huge cost to the economy… but it will ensure that the Leave vote is honoured.  Johnson is also correct to raise suspicions about the proposed “transitional arrangements.”  Given the weight of pro-EU sentiment within Britain’s elite, and especially the lucrative City of London, any transitional deal will most probably turn into a “reverse Switzerland” (The Swiss have been ‘going to join the EU’ since the 1970s, but somehow always fail to do so).

So it is that, at the crucial phase in the biggest economic and political crisis in living memory, the people negotiating the deal do not actually want a deal, while those that do are not in a position to influence events.  At the centre of the storm sits a fatally wounded Prime Minister whose only chance of staying in office is to keep everyone where they are.

And so it is that Johnson appears to be attempting a transition of his own by speaking and acting in a manner that would, in a less critical time, have got him sacked on the spot.  When Simon Brodkin pushed past security to hand Mrs May a P45 during her car crash speech, he told her that Boris had sent it.  The assumption is that this was a prank too.  However, given Johnson’s desperate need to get himself fired before even the most ardent Brexiteers realise it is all going pear-shaped, I wouldn’t put it past him to have also arranged for the letters to fall of Mrs May’s slogan either.  After all, the first character to fall was the F in For; and if “F-off” is not exactly what Johnson is thinking, I don’t know what is.

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