By Sam Stopp
We Britons are a tolerant people in a great many ways, but there are two kinds of people for whom we have very little tolerance indeed – those who believe their own hype and those who cannot think practically enough to deliver on it.
It just so happens that the former British Foreign Secretary, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (commonly known as "Boris"), who addressed Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week in a vainglorious attempt to change Britain’s Brexit negotiating strategy, is possessed of both of these vices in abundance. And that is why, for the sake of both Britain and Europe, he must never be allowed to become Prime Minister.
Since resigning as Foreign Secretary in July this year, Mr. Johnson has been highly critical of the Brexit strategy adopted by Prime Minister Theresa May. Mr. Johnson’s resignation, which had been expected almost since the moment he took office in 2016, was in protest at Mrs. May’s so-called "Chequers plan" – her final attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal with the European Union.
Mr. Johnson and his fellow Eurosceptics within and without the Conservative Party regard Chequers as a betrayal of the British people’s vote to leave the European Union. In calling for Mrs. May to "chuck Chequers", Mr. Johnson et al propose an alternative plan for a "basic" Canada-style free trade agreement drawn up by free-market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA).
The IEA recommends a new Anglo-Irish backstop agreement to preserve the open border; the elimination of tariffs and quotas on all products the UK does not produce, including foodstuffs that cannot be grown here; and that free movement from the EU is replaced by a worldwide system that “recognises the economic and social benefits and costs of immigration”.
But of course, for Mr. Johnson, this is not really about Brexit at all. It is about him wanting to become Prime Minister. Readers unfamiliar with Mr. Johnson’s life and works of should be appraised of a few salient facts. It was Mr. Johnson who fronted the "Leave" campaign during Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. This he did after penning two separate articles for The Daily Telegraph, one of which advocated remaining in the EU, while the other – which was ultimately published – advocated leaving.
Of Mr. Johnson’s ambition to become Prime Minister there can be little doubt. It was reasonably assumed by most British political commentators that Mr. Johnson’s great hope leading into the EU Referendum was that he would be the champion of the losing side and the darling of the "Brexiteer" right in both Britain and the Conservative Party. It would have been absurd to assume that a man who had spent his political career extolling the virtues of the EU would actually want Britain to leave it.
Had "Remain" won the Referendum, Mr. Johnson would have been well placed to seize the leadership of the Conservative Party when David Cameron stepped down at the end of a second term in office, which Mr. Cameron had said was his intention when he sought re-election in 2015. As it was, Mr. Johnson was forced into a leadership election several years before he had planned when Mr. Cameron announced his resignation on the morning following the Referendum.
To say Mr. Johnson “lost” the subsequent leadership election is in fact rather charitable. He didn’t even make the first ballot, as he was easily outmanoeuvred by his erstwhile colleague on the "Leave" campaign, Michael Gove. One day, Mr. Gove was Mr. Johnson’s campaign manager. The next, he was launching his own leadership bid whilst saying that Mr. Johnson didn’t have the skills for the job.
None of this negates the fact that Britain’s current Brexit negotiating strategy is a mess, but Boris Johnson would make it even worse. There are plenty of people in the Government who could do a better job than Theresa May, but Boris Johnson does not have the intellectual dexterity to handle the task. Chequers is indeed a shabby compromise, devoid of imagination, but so is Boris Johnson’s entire political persona.
The British are an eminently practical people. Part of the reason why we have so often seemed at odds with the French Rationalism in which the EU is marinated is that our own intellectual tradition owes far more to the hard and gritty edges of English Empiricism. Mr. Johnson seems to think that leaving the European Union is an intellectual exercise, rather than a mammoth bureaucratic undertaking. Perhaps if he were negotiating on behalf of the Europeans, and not on behalf of his own career, he would have an easier time being understood.
Whatever deal Mrs. May and the EU ultimately and imminently arrive at, it is certainly not going to be perfect for either side. What deal of such scale ever is? The Prime Minister is in a near-impossible position, without a majority in the House of Commons to back her generally and with no majority for any specific kind of deal. The Brexit negotiations were always going to be total carnage, but if Mr. Johnson and his fellow arch-Brexiteers were leading them, then they would have returned from Brussels either with a "hard Brexit" deal which Parliament would have summarily dismissed or no deal at all. Either scenario would probably have caused the fall of the Government.
For Mr. Johnson, as well as for a decent Brexit, time is running out. In reality, his speech in Birmingham was likely his last stand. To become Conservative Leader, he would need the support of Conservative MPs to make the ballot, and most of them now think he is as hateful as he is shallow. The British public, meanwhile, long since stopped finding him an amusing joke and a majority now regard him as a political arsonist.
Once Brexit is delivered, the Conservative Party will show Theresa May the exit door. They will either pick a moderating figure like Sajid Javid or Jeremy Hunt, or they will skip a generation and pluck an MP from obscurity to lead them. I expect therefore that Mr. Johnson’s fading star will soon fall to earth. This politician who for years has flown so dangerously close to the sun will before long disappear from the scene, to the benefit of both Britain and Europe.
Sam Stopp is a former Labour Councillor for Wembley Central in London. He founded and chaired The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.