17 June 2019, The Tablet

A born-again Boris is the Conservative Party's best hope

Johnson's immediate challenge is Brexit. If he secures the Tory leadership on a promise to deliver it, and then fails to do so, he will be finished

A born-again Boris is the Conservative Party's best hope

Boris Johnson during the launch of his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister at the Royal Academy of Engineering in central London
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

The best hope for the Tories, now, is a born-again Boris. The media consensus this weekend is that Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary, former Mayor of London, former editor of the Spectator, is odds-on favourite to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and hence as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But which Boris are they talking about? The flippant phrase-maker, the lazy incompetent maverick who believes in nothing except his own right to rise ever upwards? Or the serious and witty classics scholar with a sense of history who has the capacity to reach parts of public opinion that other Tories can only dream of?

A born-again Boris would be one who appreciated that what he needed above is all a genuine sense of gravitas, "bottom", the mark of a serious politician on the way to becoming a statesman. That would be a kind of rebirth, the closing of one chapter of his eccentric career and the start of a new one. There are clues to what this might look like. He has called himself a One Nation Tory, which is political code for unifying the nation by overcoming the divisions between rich and poor - the "Two Nations" as described by Disraeli. He has embraced, as the right public route to achieving this, an end to what is called "austerity" and a rapid increase in public expenditure on such State services as education, police and healthcare.

The point is that the "other" nation of Disraeli's two are particularly reliant on State-funded services, and yet it takes a considerable effort of imagination on the part of those on the privileged side of the divide to see this. The Tories need to borrow Labour's favourite slogan of "for the many not the few" but more importantly, some of the policies that go with it. The revival of local government is an essential part of the mix.

The public has seen too many Conservative politicians saying the right thing but doing nothing to deliver it. Mrs May was one of the worst offenders. This is not necessarily hypocrisy or playing to the gallery, but follows from the fact that delivery is a much harder business than it looks, and requires competence, determination and a grasp of detail. I know Boris Johnson well enough to know he has these abilities within him. But can he dig them out and put them to good use? He is often his own worst enemy.

His immediate challenge is Brexit. If he secures the Tory leadership on a promise to deliver it, and then fails to do so, he will be finished. He has increased the pressure on himself by guaranteeing Britain will leave the EU on or before October 31st, come what may. Apart from going back to Brussels and shouting very loudly, he has given no indication of a game plan. But there is one option that few commentators have yet noticed, though I heard Michael Portillo advocating it the other day. If it has occurred to Boris Johnson, he will not want to say so too soon. He will want to wait until he can claim he has no other choice.

The answer is the Irish Sea option. It means preserving the borderless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic by leaving Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union and single market for the time being, while the rest of the United Kingdom - England, Wales and Scotland - leaves it. That means a customs border at the ports of entry on the British side of the Irish Sea.

It would mean changing the withdrawal agreement already negotiated by Mrs May with the EU, but only in a way the EU has already approved. Indeed, before Mrs May was threatened by the Democratic Unionist Party with a withdrawal of support, it was part of the agreement as it then existed. She backed down and agreed the "backstop" as it now stands, implying that the whole United Kingdom must remain inside the EU customs union until some alternative arrangement can be agreed to keep the Irish/Northern Ireland border open.

If and when the search for alternative arrangements was eventually successful, the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, could then leave the customs union. But with the Irish Sea option, this search could be left in place, so that the British customs posts that the Irish Sea option requires would only be temporary and withdrawn when a solution was found. They would have to remain for traffic to and from the Irish Republic, though a negotiated free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would relieve that problem too.

If Mr Johnson as a new prime minister presented such a modified withdrawal agreement to the House of Commons he could well be threatened by a rebellion from the DUP, and he would have to call their bluff. He would argue that the only other possibilities were a general election or a referendum. The Tories would fear losing the former; and the pro-Leave side would fear losing the latter. The DUP would not like either. They could be silenced, however, by the threat or promise of a referendum in Northern Ireland itself.  

Might a reborn Boris Johnson think this through and carry it off? Yes. Could he, though, announce this policy in advance, for instance during the current leadership campaign? No. Once elected, if he is, he will have to wait until events force his hand and then claim he had no choice. It would not play to the gallery, however, which is where his temptation to populism could get in the way. It means being tough with the DUP, which would not be popular in Tory circles, rather then the EU, which is what his fans would like.

But that's what a test of statesmanship would look like.

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: Boyers
Posted: 22/06/2019 20:22:38
The Tories don't have a clue about Europe! They've decapitated 4 Prime Ministers already and the comedian Boris will be Number To 5. They were are so moronic they have done they don't understand what is going wrong! Meanwhile everything suffers in our infrastructure because of Brexit!
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