Boris Johnson’s premiership is in danger of being undermined by a single loose remark. No, not one involving burqas, Liverpool, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Darius Guppy and all the other many and varied ways he has offended people over the years. The remark which risks doing the real damage is his off-the-cuff comment in a hustings on 26 June when he claimed that the chances of a no-deal Brexit are ‘a million to one’. Really? That is not quite how the bookies see it – Betfair and Paddy Power are this morning offering 17/10 on a no-deal departure on 31 October, while Betfred is giving 6/4. Given that bookies live or die according to their ability to assess the chances of these sort of events I suggest that they are closer to reality than the Prime Minister.
I still think there is a good chance that over the next three months the EU will soften, Boris will start talking to other EU leaders and some sort of deal will be struck, even if it’s only temporary, ensuring that free trade in goods can continue while a more permanent arrangement is drawn up. But that isn’t the point. By appearing to dismiss the risk of a no-deal Brexit as something with a miniscule chance of happening – even if he did it only once – Boris has handed his detractors ammunition to portray him, once again, as someone who is divorced from reality. If he really thinks there is only a one in a million chance of no deal, it is too tempting to ask: why is his government spending so much time and money preparing for it? Ministers are not, by contrast, spending an awful lot of time preparing for other one-in-a-million eventualities such as a direct meteorite strike on London.
Over the next few weeks, Boris’s words are going to come back to haunt him at an ever-increasing frequency. Every time the government or the EU ups the ante, the government’s critics are going to try to use the ‘one in a million’ comment as proof that Boris entered Downing Street with a completely unrealistic idea of his own ability to negotiate. EU leaders will take those words as a sign that they do not need to compromise – that Boris is no more serious when he threatens no deal than Theresa May. It would have been much better if Boris entered his hustings with a pre-prepared line to the effect: ‘yes, there is a very serious chance of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, but the clearer the EU is about that, the less likely it is to happen.’
Over the past fortnight Boris has injected a welcome vitality into political debate compared with his dull predecessor – even Nicola Sturgeon is saying she prefers talking to Boris than Theresa May, with her never-depart-from-the-script approach to political meetings. But we are about to find out why so many politicians are scared of speaking off-the-cuff: as Prime Minister, every single word you utter is going to be set in stone for the rest of your career, and beyond.