When Boris Johnson pulled out of the Conservative leadership contest, I assumed that he wanted to avoid a humiliating result to preserve his chances with a future bid. His tactic seemed vindicated when Theresa May promoted him straight from the back benches to Foreign Secretary.
As often happens with such a striking rise, anyone who had watched House of Cards wondered what our new Prime Minister could possibly mean by it. Did she put three of the four leading Brexiteers (excluding Michael Gove) in such high offices so that they could take the blame when leaving the European Union went wrong? Was she setting up Johnson in particular to fail?
I don’t think so. It is not that May is above cynical calculation, but that it would not be in her interest for Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to make a mess of her Government’s central mission. She wants Brexit to succeed, and to do that she needs its best advocates (excluding Michael Gove) to help make it work.
Her interests and Boris’s coincided happily, and the new Foreign Secretary made a promising start. By which I mean he exceeded the low expectations of him by not falling flat on his face and causing a serious diplomatic incident within days of his appointment.
Although some of the stuffier mandarinate thought it was embarrassing for Britain to be represented on the world stage by someone they regard as a clown, many Foreign Office officials have been impressed by his erudition and underlying seriousness.
As ever, however, one of Johnson’s biggest problems is that he has written and said so many colourful things in the past. He has made fun of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, and said Donald Trump was unfit for office. Now he says we should be nice about the Turkish government, including being understanding about it wanting to bring back the death penalty; and that we should end the “whinge-o-rama” about the election of Donald Trump, who is “in many aspects a liberal guy from New York”.
But the one thing he cannot go back on is a lifetime’s disparagement of the EU. His comments in a Czech newspaper yesterday, saying it was a “myth” that free movement of people was a founding principle of the EU, provoked withering responses from Italian and Dutch ministers. And indeed from anyone who Googled the 1957 Treaty of Rome: Title III, which is called “The Free Movement of Persons, Services and Capital”.
Carlo Calenda, the Italian economic development minister, gave an account of a conversation with Johnson. “He basically said, ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” said Calenda. “I said, ‘No way.’ He said, ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said, ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, said on Newsnight last night that Boris is “offering to the British people options that are really not available”.
Ultimately, however, I don’t think it is Johnson’s colourful language that is the problem. Although it is a problem. His joke about his policy on cake being pro eating it and pro having it has gone down badly with EU leaders, whose policy on Britain and cake is that we shall not have any. But it is Johnson’s EU policy that is the fundamental problem. Negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU is simply a lose-lose proposition.
If anyone thought the terms of Brexit would be cake-filled, they would have been brought up short by the front page of the Financial Times today: “Brussels seeks up to €60bn from Britain in hardline divorce settlement.”
Theresa May did not make Johnson Foreign Secretary in the hope that he would fail, but it is hard to see how he – or indeed May herself, or Davis, or Fox – could emerge from Brexit having achieved a triumphant success.Reuse content