While May readies her most important speech yet, Boris waits in the wings

Boris Johnson was in the Caribbean last week to see for himself the damage wrought by hurricane Irma.

The foreign secretary had been stung by criticism that the government had not done enough to help people in the British overseas territories and wanted to show he was on the case.

Johnson had endured a terrible summer of negative headlines, with some describing him as a “joke” foreign secretary, and had fallen behind Jacob Rees-Mogg as the favoured successor to Theresa May, in the opinion of Tory activists. Pictures of him getting to grips with the devastation could only help. As he flew in to Barbados, Johnson sympathised with the “hellish experience” of those affected and said British troops and police who had been despatched to the region would do all they could. “We are here to help,” he pronounced.

But as he tramped around destroyed buildings and hospitals 4,000 miles away, Theresa May’s government was quietly shifting ground on the policy issue closest to his heart and in which he expects, as foreign secretary, to be closely involved – Brexit. The chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, was appearing on the same day before a House of Lords committee back at Westminster. In a highly significant response to questions from former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, Hammond appeared, subtly but deliberately, to be accepting the need for an EU exit plan that he must have known would appal the foreign secretary. Asked by Darling about the government’s plans for transitional arrangements for a two- to three-year period after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, Hammond calmly and without fanfare said there was now a consensus at the top of government about the need for the softest of soft exits to make things easier for business.

“There is general agreement that it would not make sense to ask business to face two sets of changes and that implies that a transition or interim period would need to look a lot like the status quo,” Hammond said. “Otherwise businesses will be making one set of changes at the beginning of the interim period and another set towards the end of it.”

It was not intended to sound like a big change of direction, but that was what it was. What Hammond meant was that the UK, while formally leaving the EU in 2019, would continue to operate in the single market, be subject to most of its rules, including free movement of labour, and be covered by the European court of justice’s jurisdiction. So, “a lot like the status quo”. Over the following 48 hours there were Whitehall briefings suggesting Theresa May might also be prepared to pay billions of pounds into the EU budget during that period, in return for single market access, and as part of some deal linked to the financial divorce settlement she now recognises we must also reach.This weekend the Confederation of British Industry and British Chambers of Commerce are stepping up the pressure demanding just such a transitional arrangement to prevent a catastrophic cliff edge Brexit. Negotiations between the UK and EU are stalled in Brussels. MPs of all parties are threatening to torpedo the EU Withdrawal Bill now passing through the Commons with pro single market amendments. Given these unpromising circumstances, May had, according to government sources, come round to the idea of a “status quo” transition.

Johnson was, say Tory MPs who know him, appalled for a range of reasons. First, Hammond suggested there was agreement in government about the policy shift but Johnson had not been party to any such accord. Second, the foreign secretary believed such a transitional arrangement would mean that the UK would be half-in-half-out of the EU for a long period after March 2019 and would continue to pay into the EU budget. Johnson believes the UK should turn its back completely, from day one, and pa y not a penny. Finally, all this came in the lead-up to May making a major speech on Europe in Florence, this Friday. All the indications were that the PM was warming to the idea of a transition along the lines Hammond had outlined. It seemed Johnson had been outflanked, and kept in the dark again. Deliberately.

On Saturday, Johnson responded through a 4,000-word article in the Daily Telegraph. Point by point he attacked the idea of a soft Brexit and avoided any direct mention of the kind of transitional arrangements that are now accepted as necessary by other cabinet members. Staying in the single market and customs union, he said, would make a “complete mockery” of the referendum result and paying into the EU budget for access to its markets was out of the question. “We would not expect to pay for access to their markets any more than they would expect to pay for access to ours,” he wrote. Painting Brexit as a glorious opportunity, he also revived the much-derided idea, promoted by the Leave campaign, that the post-Brexit UK will be able to take back £350m a week currently paid to the EU, and spend it on the NHS and other public services.

Mischievously he cited May’s Lancaster House speech early this year – without any recognition of the changes in thinking that have gone on inside government since then – on what would happen after 2019. “Before the referendum we all agreed on what leaving the EU must logically entail: leaving the customs unions and single market, leaving the penumbra of the European court of justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws. That is the programme Theresa May set out with such clarity in her speech on January 17 at Lancaster House and that is what she and her government will deliver.” Last night Downing Street said it had been made aware in advance that Johnson was writing an article but was equally clear that the prime minister did not know what the foreign secretary would say in it.

While May’s aides insisted the prime minister had no intention of sacking Johnson, and that his views were well known to her, an insider refused to be drawn when asked if the prime minister agreed with everything Johnson had written. “I am not saying that,” said an official. Tory MPs and commentators were clear the article was the opening salvo in a leadership bid. Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph said: “This, then, is Boris’s leadership bid, couched in such a way that he need not unsay anything if it goes wrong.” He added: “Boris’s words are so written that the prime minister cannot sack him, discipline him or probably even have him denounced behind the hand.” As to whether he would succeed, Johnson’s former editor at the Telegraph seemed unsure. “Would it be a case of the blond leading the blind? Would it force another election thus risking prime minister Corbyn?”

This weekend plenty of dismayed Tory MPs – even some who share Johnson’s views on Brexit – are calling on May to dismiss him, while recognising that she is probably too weak to do so. One former minister said: “It is completely disgraceful. You do not write an article like that without consulting the prime minister and your cabinet colleagues. It is a complete abdication of cabinet responsibility. This is all about Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, not about the interests of government or the country.” Another said that Tory MPs would be writing to the whips demanding that he be sacked as foreign secretary because he was a law unto himself and a liability: “He is deliberately tempting May to sack him but the awful thing is that she is too pathetically weak to do so. So we have a cabinet openly at war on the most important issue of the day and that is what we have to live with.” Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, a long-standing critic of Johnson, tweeted her disapproval pointing out that priorities should have been elsewhere the day after a terror attack in London.

But Johnson is not without backers. A key test in the coming weeks will be how much support he receives in the parliamentary party and in the country for his hard Brexit position. The Telegraph, in its leader column, described Johnson’s blueprint as “a coherent uplifting vision of the future”. If he is to trigger a leadership contest he will need the support of 15% of Tory MPs at Westminster. More than 40 of them signed a letter 10 days ago making clear they would not tolerate any backsliding on Brexit and many of these will admire his courage in breaking ranks. One who may back him is Crispin Blunt, the former foreign minister who was ready to support him for leader in June last year before Johnson pulled out. Blunt said yesterday that what Johnson had written was “completely consistent with the rest of the government”. As Westminster tried to digest the implications yesterday, Johnson tweeted that he was “all behind Theresa for a glorious Brexit” and was “looking forward to PM’s Florence speech”.

Even before her foreign secretary’s intervention, the prime minister was preparing for two of the most difficult speeches of her career. The first, in Italy, on Friday, will be aimed at breaking the Brexit deadlock in front of a European audience. Then in Manchester she must face the ranks of the Tory faithful after a disastrous general election and with Johnson on manoeuvres. How she emerges from the next three weeks could well determine how much longer she survives at No 10.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Toby Helm Observer political editor, for The Observer on Saturday 16th September 2017 21.39 Europe/London

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