The British cabinet has been depicted by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in typically colourful journalese, as a “nest of singing birds”. A nest of hissing vipers would be a more accurate description.
Boris has publicly broken rank with his colleagues by criticising Prime Minister May’s approach to Brexit. Where he is right or wrong in calling it confused and confusing, or weak and vacillating, or whatever else – and many of us would have no quarrel with any of that – is beside the point. He is one of the three or four senior members of this administration, and if he finds himself so fundamentally at odds with its approach to leaving the European Union he should resign. That is what cabinet ministers customarily did in such circumstances, if only to head off being humiliatingly dismissed, when politics still had a code of honour.
If Boris Johnson had refused to resign, as was widely rumoured earlier in the week, then Mrs May should have fired him.
The wonder is that she put him in the post in the first place. Clearly, and unapologetically, he has an agenda at variance with that of his boss, or of many of his ministerial colleagues, and one that has nothing to do with the national interest and everything to do with his ambition to take her job. He is, if you will forgive the alliteration, a scurrilous and scheming scoundrel. Some find him a welcome breath of fresh air, bringing gusts of wit to a rather fetid political process. This writer finds him a knuckle-headed buffoon who has made the British government even more of a laughing stock than the leadership itself has contrived to do over the past several months. A figure of fun, he certainly is, but not in any positive sense.
Rumours circulated all week that he was on the point of resigning, but obviously Mrs May decided to head him off with some kind of deal, leading to his curious off-the-cuff ornithological declaration. The situation has not been resolved. He wants Mrs May’s job and he will plot and scheme and brief until he gets it, or until he reaches the point when it becomes obvious that he won’t get it.
Mrs May is in too weak a position to resist him. She presides over a cabinet in which Johnson is far from alone in wishing to see her removed from her post. She prevails not because she is strong-willed but because there is no heir-apparent. That, it so happens is also Johnson’s problem. He is closer to being regarded as that heir in a field of distinctly second-rate rivals. But unless he makes his move – or short of that generates some kind of self-serving publicity – and sooner rather than later, he will find himself in danger of sinking into the same oblivion as them. They can afford to bide their time in the shadows and await events that might possibly fall their way. Johnson has too high a profile, and has made too many political enemies, to sit back and, like them, hope Micawber-like, for ‘something to show up’.
It is all rather unedifying. But then we live, politically, in unedifying times.
Mrs May is in a weak position and manages, with every utterance, to sound weaker still. That perception would change in an instant if she were to tell Johnson to take a hike.
Dare she? Not much chance, I’d say, but the temptation must be very great.
Go on, Theresa, give it a shot and at worst go down fighting.
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