By Campaign Agent, Luke Walpole
“My friends”, began Boris Johnson in his 4,000-word piece for The Telegraph in mid-September, yet there were members of the Conservative Party who questioned Boris’ gregariousness. ‘Who needs enemies when you have friends like these?’ was the gist, if not the colourful actuality, of how many reacted.
The Foreign Secretary’s paean to a limitless post-Brexit future came like a bolt out of the blue and proceeded to steal some of Theresa May’s thunder. The Prime Minister, only recently back in the spotlight following the sobering election result, had been due to deliver a keynote speech in Florence detailing her vision for Brexit. May did deliver days later, but it was difficult to view her speech without first staring at it through the prism that the Foreign Secretary had created. Boris was clear, this was “My vision” for a “thriving Britain”. The question hung uncomfortably in the air: was there room for the current PM in his best laid plans?
The Boris-Theresa axis has been the most persistent fault line for the Conservatives since the latter decided to run for the party’s leadership and the former reneged. Yet the cracks run deeper. Indeed, it’s difficult to know where to begin when detailing the tension amongst Tories. Certainly, the spectre of Europe has always been prescient. It is possible to go back to the 1970s, but between their ascendance to Number 10 in 2010 to June of last year, the Party’s far right became increasingly bellicose in its demands for European reform. Conventional wisdom suggested that David Cameron threw this side of his party a bone by agreeing to a referendum. Few could’ve realised just how volatile this decision would become.
When the former PM decided to step aside soon after the vote, there was a concomitant expectation that there would be a purge of Remainers in High Office. Ostensibly, this was achieved through the removal of George Osborne. Yet the bizarre situation which the Conservatives, and country as a whole, find themselves in now is that Remainers populate three of the most conventionally influential roles in politics.
Theresa May herself was a tepid advocate, Home Secretary Amber Rudd more vocal. Even Chancellor Phillip Hammond – drolly labelled ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ by colleagues – seems to profoundly question the path the public chose last year. More so, he has publicly stated a discomfort with the notion that ‘No Deal is better than a Bad Deal’. The Chancellor is not alone, and this issue has formed yet another precarious fault line within the Conservatives.
The calls for Hammond to be replaced are increasingly rambunctious. The Daily Mail recently detailed a Granita-esque meeting between Hammond and George Osborne, the former incumbent in the Chancellery. Whether one views this summit over lobster as a forum for friendly advice or a stage to plot the derailment of Brexit depends on how readily you drink the Paul Dacre Kool-Aid. However, the fact remains that the Prime Minister is in a precarious position, especially after the comedy of errors which afflicted her at the Tory’s Party Conference in Manchester. She can choose to stick with Hammond, and lose the support of the Brexiteers, or fire one of her closest confidantes and oldest friends in politics.
For his part, Boris Johnson is enigmatic. Unquestionably, the Foreign Secretary’s instrumental role in orchestrating and popularising the Leave Campaign wasn’t born solely from Euro-scepticism. Commentators from across the political spectrum cited a more opportunistic impulse at play. Johnson’s penchant for realpolitik has made him a deeply divisive figure within the party, even if he is one of the few members who can attract a strong base of support. Much like Jacob Rees-Mogg, at least he elicits a strong opinion, albeit in both directions. Cynical, or perhaps just shrewd, observers would suggest that Boris’ essay for The Telegraph was designed to weaken the PM’s authority, and re-establish his. Therefore, it is straight-forward to see Boris as the PM’s most immediate threat. Yet it is also worth registering David Davis, a man whose negotiating skills will be put under immense scrutiny in the months to come. Should he succeed, he is a figure who will emerge as the Stalking Horse in the fight for the Tory leadership.
Therefore, the splits in the Conservative Party are a heady mix of ideological disagreement, political tact and smouldering ambition. Robert Peston, ITV’s Political Editor, recently published a piece suggesting the PM may be gone “by Christmas”. Should this be the case, the pressure from Labour to go to the country once could seriously endanger Tory rule. The debate over Europe certainly unleashed demons within the party. Exorcising them is a task which could prove fateful.
Sources and further reading:
- My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit, The Telegraph
- Brexit is David Cameron’s fault, Vox
- Lobster plot! How Philip Hammond and arch Remainer George Osborne conspired at a seafood restaurant days before the Chancellor threw a spanner in the Brexit works, The Daily Mail
- Blair–Brown deal, Wikipedia
- Philip Hammond ‘must be sacked for not supporting Brexit’ – Tory right, The Guardian
- Boris Johnson: Everything about you is phoney, The Spectator
- ‘May gone by Christmas’, ITV
Image: Number 10 @Flickr