‘Underestimate Boris Johnson at your peril’ is the warning from one of the Foreign Secretary’s longest-serving allies after numerous MPs urged him to get into line on Brexit.
James Cleverly, who served as a London Assembly Member when Johnson was mayor of the capital, defended his former boss’s recent interventions on Brexit, and even suggested the Foreign Secretary’s own red lines could help Theresa May in negotiations with Brussels.
Johnson told The Sun on the eve of the Conservative Party conference that any transition period after March 2019 should not last “a second longer” than two years – a more hardline position than that set out by May in her Florence speech.
One MP told Johnson to “keep his bloody mouth shut”, while Scottish leader Ruth Davidson suggested she would sack him.
Speaking at a special recording of HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Cleverly said: “I don’t think it’s as unhelpful as some people are interpreting it to be. I genuinely don’t believe that Boris is trying to be unhelpful.”
He went on: “Of the spectrum of options that the Prime Minister laid out in the Florence speech, he is championing the tighter end of that spectrum of options, and they’ll be other people who are going to champion the other end of that spectrum.”
The Braintree MP described Johnson as an “unbelievably clever guy” – despite his scruffy appearance, and said he “puts across this persona, and I think it’s now so hardcoded into his psyche he’s never going to stop doing that.”
He added: “But there are a list of people who have thought that they could comfortably and easily outsmart him whose careers are now over, including Ken Livingston, and he’s currently Foreign Secretary.
“What I would say is underestimate him at your peril because he’s a very, very smart and very effective operator - maybe because or despite of his total inability to address himself.”
Cleverly, who recently admitted he would like to be Prime Minister, did pull back from endorsing Johnson using articles and interviews to put forward his view.
He said: “It’s not necessarily how I would do it.
“Boris has always used his writing skills to push his ideas forward.
“Actually, I think for the people we’re negotiating with its not bad thing to know there is a strong constituency of people in the UK who are still very keen to have a much – I hate the word ‘hard’ Brexit – but to have a much tighter and quicker Brexit process than others.”
After describing the former Mayor as “the scruffiest grown-up I have ever met”, Cleverly recounted being out on the campaign trail with Johnson in Bromley in 2008.
“As he was walking along I noticed the sole of one shoe had a leather sole and the sole of the other shoe had a rubber sole and I was thinking: ‘Why would you take a pair of shoes in and replace one sole but not both?’
“I realised one was an Oxford and one was a Brogue. They were two halves of a different pair of shoes. Adults don’t do that. My kids do that sometimes, but grown-ups don’t do that.”
Cleverly, who is popular with young Tories thanks to his forthright speaking-style, also entered into a game of Snog, Marry, Avoid.
During a radio interview last year, Cleverly said he would snog Theresa May, prompting mocking from his fellow MPs when she addressed a backbench meeting he attended just days later.
When asked by an audience member today which “colleagues on the green benches” he would snog, marry and avoid, Cleverly paused before HuffPost UK suggested Plymouth Johnny Mercer.
“Have you seen the shower scene?” he replied, a reference to an advert for Dove soap staring the former soldier (below).
He went on: “I would so smash that. I would be totally willing to be quite gay if Johnny Mercer was involved.
“Snog Johnny, marry Theresa because she’s the Prime Minister and you can’t do snogging with the Prime Minister, and avoid Laura Pidcock.
“She sounds like not a lot of fun to be with. There are loads of people in Parliament who are a lot of fun to be with, she sounds a little bit dour.”