Wednesday 20 September
It looks like Boris Johnson has missed a magical opportunity to use the Prime MInister’s pre-ordained game-changer of a speech to put Brussels in its place over the dreaded divorce bill.
When it comes to Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU, her Majesty’s cabinet stands, divided. The Hammond Rudd faction look to the Swiss for inspiration, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and his Brexit ally Michael Gove look to the pathway beaten by the Canadians. The Prime herself rejects the “binary choice”, but the fact of the matter is, if you’re going to have a trade deal with the EU, you’re either going to opt for an intimate and expensive arrangement or a straightforward tariff-free, there’s no in-between.
Boris barks, but fails to bite
So, what will it be? Following two developments over the course of Tuesday the enfeebling Swiss option has ominously drawn into view. The first was Mr Johnson’s pledge not to resign following a 4,000-word article advocating a hard Brexit, accompanied by a series of punishing statements, delivered via back channels, including a threat to stand down if the Prime Minister did not honour the people’s will.
The Foreign Secretary outright denied the resignation chatter, “Not me, guv. I don’t know where it is coming from, honestly,” he told the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour in New York” last night, before close friends shot back: “[Boris] could not live with” with the UK continuing to pay for single market access, they said.
The former Mayor of London also admitted to Wintour he’d filed his essay with the Telegraph in direct response to his fellow columnist Fraser Nelson’s accusation of dereliction of duty printed the day before.
“I was conscious that people wanted me to contribute to the public debate,” He told Wintour. “One after the other people wrote articles — ‘where oh where, why cannot we hear from Johnson?’ I then obliged them.”
Regardless of the circumstances, it was high time someone other than Jacob Reese-Mogg made a positive case for Brexit.
Johnsons’s whimsical intervention dragged the Prime Minister into the brewing fray over how much the UK intends to pay the EU over the coming years with the resignation threats sustaining the mercury at high levels until yesterday evening when Theresa May’s Chief of staff Gavin Barwell is said to have subdued Johnson at a Commonwealth reception.
Hanging over Johnson’s reputation now is what assurances Barwell was able to provide him with. Is Nelson’s charge that Johnson is holding onto high office, waiting for forthcoming events to portray him as the heir apparent to the party leadership, true?
For all the credit he deserves for bigging up Brexit, Boris did not resign after first allowing everyone to think he would if the Prime Minister gave into Brussels’ demands for an undeserved windfall, which she then did.
The second development of the last 24 hours was the FT’s revelation that May’s top EU adviser, Olly Robbins has been doing the rounds of EU capitals at his boss’s bidding, promising to fill the gaps in the EU’s spending plans left by Brexit up to 2020, when the spending programme ends, an eye-watering £20 billion in total.
Johnson’s allies would defend their man on the grounds that he objects to interminable payments for single market access. His recently revised position views budget transfers during the treacherous transition period as an acceptable evil. Fair point if you are that way inclined and at the business end of signing treaties and cheques, but we are nowhere near there, these are still very early days. Such a premature pledge to hand over whopping wads of cash also serves as a promise of more to come.
Ever eager to underline Brexit’s futility, the FT reeled off several quotes from unnamed EU officials expressing pessimism over the Prime Minister’s generous offer.
“We will probably be disappointed. We can at least start talking. But this falls short on clarity [on the principles] and magnitude”, said one.
So voracious is its appetite for cash from one of the few economic success stories of the past decade, the EU views the divorce bill as entirely separate to monies paid for continued single market membership. Utterly ridiculous. It is the EU that is dragging the UK into a transitional deal by running down the clock on the 24-month Article 50 negotiations.
May will be pledging the £20 billion at her highly-anticipated speech in Florence on Friday. The PM views big speeches as an effective political weapon and hopes to breakdown Brussels ill will with gracious words in a famously mercantile city of old as well as sack loads of cash, hence Robbins’ mission around Europe to stir up interest.
Johnson had a fabulous opportunity to mould the content of the speech to mirror his article: a show of defiance from a Brexit Britain increasingly fed-up with EU greed and trickery, an outward-looking nation looking to go global. Conservative spin doctors are tonight taking a leaf out of the Corbyn playbook, prolonging the tussle between May’s Swiss position and Johnson’s Canadian alternative to appeal to all sides and keep Johnson’s credibility with the Tory faithful afloat.
Futile. After promising so much, May will have to deliver something new and concrete on Friday and Johnson will have missed a chance to bend Britain’s destiny the way of 17.4 million’s.