Boris Johnson has been nothing but trouble to the prime minister for most of his time as foreign secretary. It has been no secret that Theresa May’s relations with him have been poor, and she was braced for his resignation at the all-day cabinet meeting at Chequers on Friday.
However, Johnson seemed to retreat from that option when he met fellow Eurosceptic cabinet ministers at the Foreign Office the day before the cabinet meeting. It was painfully clear, according to some of those present, that the group did not have an alternative to the prime minister’s policy.
They did not like the emerging policy of a soft Brexit, but they were divided between Michael Gove and Liam Fox on the one hand, who say that the important thing is to get out of the EU and then argue about the way forward, and Davis and Johnson, who were unhappy about the direction but unclear what to do about it.
When Johnson failed to resign on Friday, it seemed as if May had pulled off a remarkable coup. The foreign secretary had huffed and puffed, in public and in private, but he seemed to have decided that it was better to stay in government than to snipe from the sidelines.
That triumph was shortlived, and brought to an end not by Johnson but by David Davis. The former Brexit secretary’s departure had also been anticipated – he has threatened to resign often enough – but was more wounding to May. Davis was always loyal to her. His resignation letter has been described as devastating, but I thought it was more in sorrow than in anger, and Davis refused to criticise the prime minister in his interviews this morning.
May would have been sorry to lose Davis, but when Johnson meekly followed his colleague’s example – had it not been for the further destabilisation of her government – she would have been glad to see the back of him.
But what matters is the destabilisation. And the prime minister’s position is not yet terminally threatened. She was ready for two resignations last Friday, and the delay in the delivery of those letters merely allowed her position to appear, briefly, to be stronger than it was.
Now she is back to being merely weak, but not yet removable. For all the vehemence of those who feel betrayed by the Chequers policy, they do not have the numbers.
They might get 48 MPs to call, anonymously, for a vote of confidence in May’s leadership, but they don’t have the 159 names – a majority of Tory MPs – they need to dislodge her.
Which is why May was ready to live with Johnson’s departure. Not only does he not have the numbers to get rid of her, but Johnson’s stock has been plummeting in the two markets that decide his future. Tory MPs have not been impressed by his antics over the past two years, and he has lost his lustre as a vote-winning celebrity that he used to have as London mayor.
A YouGov poll of Tory party members today confirmed that he has lost ground in that market too. Among the people who have the final say over the next leader of the party, he would lose to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove or Ruth Davidson.
No part of the nation is going to take to the streets to protest against Boris Johnson’s removal of himself from high office.
The prime minister may not look stronger today, but the two ministers she has lost today are no longer a threat to her position, and she has the semblance of a united government policy that has a chance of being supported by parliament.
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