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  |   Insights & Views


Boris Johnson's 'leadership speech': how to understand what he was really up to at party conference

After months spent criticising the government and even launching personal attacks, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to confirm his leadership intentions with a wide ranging, party-leadership style speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.

Presenting himself as a serious figure and covering a variety of issues such as housing, the NHS, policing and tax cuts – none of which he has ever had ministerial control over – Johnson has provided the clearest signal yet of his personal ambition.

It would be surprising if he actually challenged for the leadership before March. His resignation from cabinet and constant undermining of the Chequers plan seem designed to distance himself as much as possible from the current situation. It is Theresa May who has to captain and go down with the Brexit ship.

However, Johnson is clearly positioning himself for a leadership challenge at some point in the future. This once again highlights the fact that in all of this, it is his own ambition and desires that are most important – not Brexit, nor the people who voted for it.

The audience in the room were elated when Boris used his newest catchphrase, “chuck chequers”. This is not surprising given that May’s Brexit plan has been widely derided at home and abroad since it was first announced back in July. But Johnson’s alternative Brexit plan outlined on the Friday before the conference, was characteristically light on detail. He spoke of British patriotism, fears of federalism and the need to respect the will of the people – and blamed the government’s lack of confidence, decisiveness and vision over the past few years for the current situation. Curiously, despite being in key government offices and negotiating positions for the majority of this time, individuals such as himself, and fellow malcontent, former Brexit secretary David Davis, are notably absent from this truncated criticism of events.

Johnson describes his plan as a “Super Canada” deal. It includes proposals such as zero tariffs and quotas on all imports and exports, mutual recognition of regulations on product standards and technological solutions to ensure supply chains continue to operate smoothly. Johnson claims that aspects such as joining the EU’s aviation area should be “relatively straightforward” to negotiate. However, he offers no guide as to how a deal would be struck in the few weeks remaining in the Brexit process – especially given that the Regular Canada deal took several years to negotiate. Johnson did suggest that there are provisions in place to extend the negotiation period, but again, didn’t elaborate on how or even if this could actually be done.

Johnson’s plan would have been more welcome, and perhaps more achievable, had it been put forward months or even years ago, which again suggests that “delivering on Brexit” is not his main aim. Apart from predictable support from the likes of Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, most senior Conservative MPs have condemned and ridiculed Johnson’s plan.

One of the most damming critics has been chancellor Philip Hammond. He apparently suggested that Johnson is incapable of “grown up politics” and has “no grasp of detail”, and while Johnson’s speech may have tried to counter the former, it certainly did not with the latter. While Hammond is not particularly popular with grassroots Brexit supporters, it signals that Johnson may struggle to appeal to the Tory mainstream. That will be all important if he does indeed wish to secure the leadership. However, the carefully written and well-orchestrated speech in Birmingham has, for now at least, given Johnson a boost.

But all of this once again highlights what is perhaps the UK’s greatest disadvantage in Brexit negotiations – a lack of unity in Westminster and more specifically the Conservative Party. It’s all very well berating the government for looking weak in the eyes of the EU but MPs such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg are enthusiastically contributing to that problem. They are only too happy to point out that they have the support of around 60 Conservative MPs who will vote against any Chequers style deal. That hardly puts the Prime Minister in a strong negotiating position.

It’s easy to see the EU as stubborn and confrontational, and while it would be disingenuous to dismiss this completely, such claims can’t hide the fact that, unlike the UK, the EU27 nations have decided what they do and do not want and have stuck to it with little outward sign of dispute. Not all European governments agree on all of the details, but they have all agreed on what they perceive to be best for the EU as a whole, emphasising this over what individual nations might prefer.

Johnson may claim he is acting to deliver the Brexit people voted for but the tone and timing of his actions, culminating in his Party Conference speech, suggest it is his own personal desires and ambitions that are more important, and this is to the detriment of the stability of the UK and its ability to negotiate a good deal.

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