Ambitious Boris Johnson rattles May, shakes up Brexit debate

AP News
Posted: Sep 20, 2017 10:33 AM
Ambitious Boris Johnson rattles May, shakes up Brexit debate

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Theresa May must be asking herself: How do you solve a problem like Boris Johnson?

Britain's undiplomatic chief diplomat has thrown British politics into turmoil by thrusting himself to the front of the Brexit debate at the worst possible time for the country's leader.

The insurrection has left friends and foes scrambling to determine his motives. Is he about to resign, get fired, mount a coup? Is he trying to push May into adopting his free-market vision of life outside the European Union?

The one certainty is that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is exactly where he likes to be: at the center of attention. Johnson's rumpled exterior — affable, flaxen-haired upper-class eccentric — covers a core of steely ambition.

"He doesn't like it that much when the spotlight isn't on him," journalist Michael Cockerell, who has made a documentary about Johnson, told Sky News.

Johnson's latest spotlight-stealing move came in a 4,000-word Sunday Telegraph article outlining his vision of a "glorious Brexit." It was published days before the prime minister travels to Florence, Italy on Friday to make a speech intended to unblock log-jammed divorce talks with the EU.

Johnson's article called for the U.K. to adopt a low-tax, low-regulation economy outside the EU's single market and customs union. Seemingly written without consulting May, it was widely seen as an act of insubordination that would get most ministers fired.

But pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke said that May, leading a fragile government and weakened after losing her parliamentary majority in June's snap election, "is not in the position easily to sack him."

The response from May and her allies was noticeably muted.

"Boris is Boris," May said, insisting that "the U.K. government is driven from the front, and we all have the same destination in our sights."

Johnson, meanwhile, denied planning to quit or maneuvering to oust May. Cornered — in his jogging clothes — by British reporters in a New York hotel lobby on Tuesday, he insisted that the government was a harmonious "nest of singing birds."

That's unlikely. The Cabinet is split between Brexit true believers including Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who want a sharp break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond, who want to soften the economic impact through a long status-quo transition period.

May is trying to keep the warring sides from tearing her government apart. Johnson's article helps position him as figurehead of the "hard Brexit" faction.

"He is trying to create an alternative base for himself in the Conservative Party and portray Theresa May as a lame duck — which in essence she is," said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds.

Honeyman said becoming prime minister was the "ultimate game plan, though I think Boris Johnson generally is someone who travels in zigzags, rather than in a straight line."

His career bears out that description. The 53-year-old has been a journalist (and was once fired for fabricating a quote), a magazine editor, a member of Parliament, the mayor of London between 2008 and 2016 and a leading campaigner to quit the EU during last year's referendum campaign.

When David Cameron resigned as prime minister after the referendum, Johnson planned to run to replace him. But he was abandoned by a key Conservative ally and outmaneuvered by May, who had backed the losing "remain" side of the EU debate.

May made him foreign secretary, one of the most important posts in government. But Johnson's remit does not include Brexit, which is consuming most of the government's time and energy — and getting most of the attention.

In March, Britain triggered a two-year countdown to departure from the 28-nation EU. Since then, negotiations have made little progress on key issues including the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and the amount Britain must pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc.

Increasingly frustrated EU officials insist talks can't move on to a future trade deal with Britain until those key divorce terms have been agreed upon. Some speculate May will make a multi-billion pound offer to the bloc in her Florence speech to break the stalemate.

That would annoy hard-core euroskeptics, who insist Britain doesn't owe a penny — a sentiment echoed by Johnson in July, when he said the bloc could "go whistle" if it made extortionate financial demands.

Irish EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said Johnson's statements suggested "that he is completely out of the loop" about the hard realities of exit negotiations.

"Mr. Johnson is behaving and acting and speaking strangely," Hogan told the Evening Standard newspaper. "It's clear that his reputation is not good and he is a diminished figure in the government."

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at