In my Daily Telegraph column yesterday, I asked where Boris Johnson had gone. We never hear from him now, I said, unless there’s been some tragedy overseas or some risqué joke backfiring in Bratislava. Since becoming Foreign Secretary, the most gifted communicator in the Tory party had been mute – a baffling waste of talent. While he sulked, Brexit was being defined by its enemies. The narrative has become one of tedious negotiations and no one in government seemed able (or even interested) in saying what the point of Brexit was.
Boris helped inspired a nation to vote for Brexit, and gave a wonderful, liberal and globally-minded definition of it – a very different version to that offered by Nigel Farage with his despicable posters. Without Boris, there would probably have been no Brexit. His appointment was inspired: we needed a Great Explainer, someone who could counter the myths being spread about Brexit and the motives of those who voted for it. A great diplomatic task.
As one British ambassador to a G20 country told me recently, it’s very hard to explain Brexit abroad when the project is being defined in the worst possible terms by the Economist, the Financial Times and the New York Times – the three English-language publications read most overseas. I told him that I’m afraid it’s the job of the Foreign Office rather than the press to make the British government’s case abroad. But I thought at the time: isn’t it a shame to have the most gifted communicator in politics running the Foreign Office, and he’s too nervous to give his ambassadors the verbal ammunition that they need?
In my column, I described three popular theories about why BoJo has lost his mojo, then advocated my own: that he’s taken aback by the bitterness of those he defeated and the obloquy heaped upon him personally. He’s used to be being laughed at and underrated, but not despised. And that he’s now paranoid about being seen as a disloyal schemer, so he keeps quiet. He fears that everything he says will be interpreted as a leadership bid. He also worries that he’d be stepping on the toes of his colleagues David Davis and Liam Fox, who unlike him have direct Brexit briefs. But this is pointless, I concluded, because that means he’ll never say anything – in which case, what’s the point of Boris Johnson? What’s the point of a Foreign Secretary who stands silent on the greatest foreign policy question of the day? Using Boris as a Whitehall administrator is like deploying Lionel Messi to be a sandwich maker.
So I was delighted to open the Daily Telegraph today and find 4,000 words of Boris making the case for Brexit and taking aim at the ‘groundless and peculiar lack of confidence in Britain’. Needless to say, it was greeted with shock by his critics, whose main weapon against him is to accuse him of a leadership bid. But I wonder if he could ever give a major speech without that accusation. The timing is odd, but perhaps there would never be a good time. I was on the BBC News channel earlier and asked why, if it wasn’t a leadership bid, he started his column with the words ‘My friends’. The answer is that Boris always talks in this way, especially to readers of the Telegraph and The Spectator whom he genuinely regards as friends.
What he wrote today in no way contradicts the government’s position on Brexit – indeed, it’s the most articulate definition of that position since the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech. The extraordinary thing is not Boris’s intervention, but the lack of such interventions. Cabinet members should be making the case for Brexit all the time, not just to challenge the false narrative about it being nativist or populist in nature but to assuage the concerns of Remain voters. They will need a lot of convincing that this vote really will mean a global Britain lifting its sights to more distant horizons. The Brexiteers need to do what they can to drop partisan language and focus on reconciliation.
After the Brexit vote, the Leave side stopped campaigning – and this was a massive error. It has allowed Brexit to be defined by its enemies. Sure, the forecasts of an immediate recession didn’t come to pass. But that has made the publications who predicted it even more angry, and determined to portray it as a disaster. The human need for vindication has created a new media bias in much of the coverage, and we now see Brexit being attacked more vociferously now than in during the referendum campaign. So the government needs to step up its positive message – and activate its greatest messengers.
Yes, a good many Tories loathe Boris and see him as an opportunist only out for himself. This is the party’s great weakness: to see everything through the prism of its own internal power struggle and not to see how it looks to voters. If they all keep quiet, for fear being seen as schemers, they look clueless and pointless – and the Tory Party looks like its main function is to keep the seat of power warm for Jeremy Corbyn.
Far better individual that Cabinet members promote the government’s agenda in their own way, with their own voice. I’d have Boris and Michael Gove out there a lot more often, making the case for Brexit in a conciliatory way. Gently pointing out that things need not be so bad, just as they have not so far been so bad. As Boris writes today, ‘it is not fair or right for one side to stereotype the motives of the other, because there is no stereotype.’ He acknowledges that people can feel European as part of a national identity (as I do) which made the referendum all the more agonising. He admits he was wrong to dismiss the notion of Brits developing a proudly European identity. He’s starting a debate, and setting the agenda.
All of this certainly alarms the government’s opponents. They’re out to shut down Boris, and thought they’d bullied him into silence. Isn’t he supposed to be hanging his head in shame about that claim on the side of a bus? Not a bit of it: he’s repeating his (accurate) point that Britain will be ‘taking back control’ of the weekly £350 million sent to the EU. And yes, the net sum is lower once you factor in EU spending on Britain but the word ‘control’ is crucial. In his words:-
‘We will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.’
There are better ways to spend regional development cash, for example, than the ways Brussels is spending it in Britain now. And as Boris found out last year, if you mention the £350m this figure then your opponents go bananas and talk about it non-stop – moving the conversation on to just how much we will save outside the EU. Which, from his side of the debate, is helpful. They rise to the bait every time.
‘Boris Johnson is on manoeuvres, which means everyone else should take cover,’ says Vince Cable. No, he’s just making the government’s case for Brexit – and I can understand why the Liberal Democrats don’t much like it. Boris is communicating: using the kind of panache and effectiveness with which he has always been capable. I don’t think he will ever be Prime Minister: he had his chance last year, and blew it. Spectacularly. But the question hanging over him now is whether he’ll even be remembered as a decent Foreign Secretary – or just a local government figure who developed stage fright when plonked on the national stage.
I ended my Daily Telegraph column by saying it would be tragic if Boris limped away from a great office of state because he was too afraid to use his voice. Too afraid of being denounced as a schemer. Well, he doesn’t look afraid this morning. There are talented people in the Cabinet: if they are allowed to speak, and make the government’s case in their own distinctive way, then the Tories might start to look alive – rather than zombified.
I hope this is not a whale spray from Boris, but a sign of his resurfacing for good. But I’m not terribly optimistic: we may we’ll learn that this suspiciously speech-length essay was planned for Tory conference but vetoed by No10. Or his fellow MPs may persuade him that the act of speaking is disloyal and that he ought not to do it again. That would be a shame. The Tories might not realise it, but they really do need all the help they can get – even Boris’s.