Theresa May can restore some of her credibility by putting Boris Johnson in charge of Brexit

If he wants so badly to have a say in Brexit, if he really has a vision of Brexit Britain and an idea of how to go about getting it, why not let him try? Contrive a job swap with David Davis – who sounds ever wearier as chief negotiator – and dispatch Boris to Brussels, his old childhood home

The Foreign Secretary has published his views about Brexit in various newspapers
The Foreign Secretary has published his views about Brexit in various newspapers

An accident-strewn speech on the last day of the Conservative Party conference took the spotlight off the Foreign Secretary and back on to the Prime Minister, although probably not in the way she had hoped. But the “Boris” problem persists, and it will persist, until Theresa May becomes brave enough or desperate enough to do something about it.

No prime minister should tolerate for long a foreign secretary who uses his own platforms in the national media to snipe about the way the Government – his Government – is dealing with the most urgent and weighty task at hand: in this case, the UK’s departure from the European Union. Johnson’s interventions undermine her authority.

And no prime minster should indulge for long a foreign secretary, or for that matter any minister, who is as patently bored and frustrated with his portfolio as Johnson is. The splendid title, the grand office overlooking St James’s Park, the global travel, the ambassadorial receptions, count for little if the true heart of the job (as you see it) was excised before you were allowed near it.

Hence the 4,000-word undelivered speech that found its way into the Daily Telegraph just as the Prime Minister was preparing what was intended as her landmark Florence speech. Hence the four “red lines” for the future of Brexit talks that appeared in an interview with The Sun just as Theresa May was drafting her ill-fated conference speech. “Unhelpful” – the standard description for this sort of intervention from your own side – is putting it mildly.

Theresa May's speech breaks down due to coughing fit

When Johnson followed up his tightly controlled and unusually supportive “lion’s roar” speech at the party conference with a tasteless remark about Libya at a fringe meeting, the knives really came out. Critics told him to consider his position. There were new calls to the Prime Minister finally to sack him. But is there perhaps a more “creative” solution, to use the word May used of her new approach to the Brexit talks?

The case for dismissing Johnson is clear, and – almost – unimpeachable. But the dilemma is the same as it was when he was, surprisingly, handed what seemed like his plum job. For May to appoint her potentially most dangerous rival foreign secretary was a canny, indeed a gutsy, move. Not only did it tether him inside the Government tent, but the job he was given also played to Johnson’s vanity and statesman’s aspirations.

And while his extensive travel over the past half year can be justified as an attempt to establish post-Brexit Britain as a global, rather than regional, player, it also served the useful function of keeping him for weeks at a time many time zones away from the main action. He could only watch from afar as David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, sat around tables with Michel Barnier, trying to do a job that rendered his own, at best, peripheral. Worse still, he was supposed to sound supportive, or at very least refrain from any comment that could be misconstrued.

He has clearly found this harder and harder as time and the Brexit talks have gone on – which, of course, reflects badly on him as the holder of one of the great offices of state, as the diplomat his job requires him to be, and as a team player at a time when the Government needs, more than ever, to present a united front. By rights, he should be fired.

But the danger an exiled Boris Johnson would present – to Theresa May and to the Government’s still hazy approach to Brexit – is as great as it ever was. So why not try something else? If he wants so badly to have a say in Brexit, if he really has a vision of Brexit Britain and an idea of how to go about getting it, why not let him try? Contrive a job swap with David Davis – who sounds ever wearier as chief negotiator and might enjoy a swing around the former colonies – and dispatch Boris to Brussels, his old childhood home and journalistic stomping ground.

Boris Johnson says Sirte could become the next Dubai when the dead bodies are removed

There are several reasons why this might work. First, his heart would be in it, in a way that it is obviously not in the hollowed-out post of foreign secretary. Second, it would force him to take direct responsibility for his support for Brexit – a decision that could have cost David Cameron the Remain majority he had banked on. Third, the combination of rakish charm, cosmopolitan lineage and European experience that make Boris so, well, Boris could just smooth the passage of talks with Brussels.

Johnson’s remarks about Libya at the conference fringe meeting – not to speak of his attempted Kipling recitation in Myanmar – show him to be crass and gaffe-prone. But he also possesses a sense of history, the capacity for empathy, and a sensitivity towards language – qualities that have been sadly lacking in talks where inadequate translation and lack of linguistic nuance have compounded all the other difficulties. If the two principal negotiators could understand each other a little better, could the talks assume a more positive tone?

There is much to be said against this, of course. What would it do for Cabinet discipline if “bad” boys such as Boris were rewarded for their transgressions? And what about the response in Brussels? Not only do many hold Boris in outright contempt as the author of the whole Brexit fiasco, but his various critiques from the sidelines have led him to be dismissed as a buffoon and a risk-taker whose word is very definitely not his bond.

Well, yes, but Brussels must deal with whoever the UK nominates. And it would then be up to Boris to prove them wrong. He would have to demonstrate – not just to the EU, but to his own colleagues in London – that his optimism is not as shallow as it might seem; that his writings have not been just whistling in the dark, that he really does have ideas about how Brexit can work and how a reasonable divorce settlement can be achieved.

Theresa May asked if Boris Johnson is unsackable

If his boasts are proved empty, his career will be over and a Brexit agreement will be delayed more than seems likely at present. If not, however, we could be looking at the UK and the EU suddenly able to reach an accommodation and accepting that they will go their different ways.

A twist in the tail could be if that accommodation turned out to be more of a soft Brexit than the hard version championed – rhetorically, at least – by Johnson. Such an outcome would better reflect the result of the referendum, which at 52-48 was far from a landslide. Who better, then, to “sell” the deal to his Brexiteer constituency than a man who came out for Leave only after much agonising and drafting the arguments for both sides?

Boris being Boris, you could even imagine a scenario where, after many long days and long dinners in Brussels, he throws up his hands and calls a press conference to declare: “You know what, folks, I’ve had another look, and Brexit is really not in the national interest, or of such marginal benefit as to warrant another referendum.” No other politician would be able to do that – but maybe, just maybe, Boris could.

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