In politics as in life, it’s back to school week. So it’s perfectly apt that Boris Johnson – a man whose entire career is based on his naughty schoolboy persona – should be flicking rubber bands at the teacher from the back of the class. Knowing that Miss is too weak to expel him, but that many fellow pupils distrust him, Johnson has this morning given us a taste of the fraught term to come.
Delivering a Daily Telegraph column that finally begins to repay his huge fee with splash headlines, the former foreign secretary mixes military and wrestling analogies as he says Theresa May’s Chequers plan will hand Brexit “victory” to the EU.
On the 79th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War (I checked my diary), he yells that the UK has “gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank”. If Boris follows up these warning shots in the Commons and at the Tory party conference, the phoney war may be phoney no longer.
Yet while Johnson has a nice journalistic turn of phrase, his colleagues have not forgotten the fact that he delayed his Cabinet resignation until after David Davis’s. In fact, DD had a wonderfully laconic remark on Marr yesterday about his former colleague: “I know what he wants, but I don’t know what he’s planning to do.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Justine Greening raises similar doubts: “I know what he thinks about Brexit – but what about anything else? I mean what’s the plan? What’s the plan?” You can’t get to be Tory leader without an alternative on Brexit (at least DD has his Canada-plus), let alone a manifesto on tax-and-spend and other policies.
Freed of collective responsibility, we will get to see backbench Boris in coming weeks, but backbench Boris didn’t have a plan back in 2015 either. And he’s failed to woo many 2015 or 2017 new intake Tory MPs.
What’s intriguing is the growing move among some Tories for a temporary membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), followed by a free-trade model worked out later. This Norway-then-Canada approach is backed by former Remainer Nick Boles (and by Brexiteer and former Telegraph man George Trefgarne in an online book out today). There is muttering that Michael Gove could back it, should Chequers be rejected by Brussels (as Barnier hinted again yesterday). Could disaffected Conservative Remainers and Leavers alike unite around such a park-it-then-sort-it model?
Well, even if the PM could get Tory support for a temporary Norway solution, would Labour not just simply seize its chance to say its own tests won’t be met and we’ll have a general election thank you very much? Liam Fox put his finger on it when he said even if the Tories changed leader “you would end up with the same arithmetic but possibly more resentment”. No.10 and Brussels could try more fudge and delay, but her backbenches have had a bellyful of that already. Buckle up, folks, it’s going to be a rough ride ahead this autumn.