Boris Johnson remains loyal to embattered Theresa May - but only time (and his timing) will tell
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
While Theresa May accidentally borrowed from the West Wing in her Conservative Party conference speech last week – with the drama turning into a farce – she has been experiencing the Tory version of 'House of Cards'.
The Labour conference in Brighton was a celebration, even though they were not victorious in the general election; and the Tory conference in Manchester was a lacklustre affair much like their campaigning, while they were the winning side, dragging themselves across the finish line with a little help from their friends (and a £1 billion deal with the DUP).
As the Machiavellian chief whip Francis Urquhart noted in the Michael Dobbs novel: “Party conferences can be such fun. They resemble a nest of cuckoos. Sit back and enjoy watching everyone trying to push the others out."
Mrs May did not require the other 'cuckoos' to push her out of the nest – the Prime Minister was more than capable of doing that herself with her disastrous keynote speech. Whether it was a coughing fit, a comedian infiltrating the conference hall with a P45 for the embattled Tory leader, or the stage set falling apart behind her, bad luck plus her weak leadership equals a political disaster.
Enter Boris Johnson. Or indeed, exit the Foreign Secretary. It all depends whether he decides to stay loyal, as he pleaded with Tory MPs in a private Whatsapp conversation to back Mrs May, or he runs against her; whether he lines himself up for a self-righteous resignation, or the Prime Minister has had enough and deemed that her Cabinet colleague has been undermining her too much.
Writing in the Manchester Evening News, Jennifer Williams uses a literary reference seeing as Mr Johnson enjoys using them himself: "Boris largely did not come to the stage to praise Theresa May this afternoon - but neither did he use his much-anticipated address to bury her, either. Not yet." His conference speech was just loyal enough to avoid being accused of treachery, and delivered his usual "bombastic, crowd-pleasing speech that was all about Boris and ambition". Williams adds that his policy brief was secondary - he is, although we need to remind ourselves, foreign secretary, after all.
Mr Johnson, however, does not need to remind us about his aspirations for the top job. He has been accused of being a "back-seat driver" when he set out his vision for Brexit, and drew his four 'red lines' on Britain's exit from the European Union. Timing is an issue for both Brexit and the Foreign Secretary's chance to move to the front seat and take the wheel.
The Spectator argues that if the former London mayor waits until March 29, 2019, when Britain leaves the European Union, his chances in a leadership contest will be significantly lower because the party will want a 'clean skin' to succeed Theresa May, not "one of the protagonists in the Brexit drama" – or indeed, one of the antagonists. The Tories will be wanting someone who can "unite the party around their vision for the future, not remind them of their disagreements in the past".
The Conservative Party has no appetite for a contest before Brexit, as it would be "politically toxic" for the party to waste several weeks choosing a new leader when they should be concentrating on the Brexit negotiations instead. This feeling is mutual with voters who think it would be bad for the talks if the Prime Minister resigns, according to a Sky Data poll. The survey found that 42 per cent of Britons think an immediate resignation would damage the negotiations, compared with just 18 per cent who think it would be positive for the talks between Westminster and Brussels. A third believe it would make no difference at all, while eight per cent do not know how it would affect them.
Boris Johnson claims that Theresa May has his backing, and the backing of the whole cabinet – but for how long? If the Foreign Secretary desires the top job, he needs to get his timing right; otherwise, his entrance at the opportune moment could be an exit from the race yet again.