Theresa May’s “Johnson problem”

Boris Johnson is after Theresa May’s job and he smells blood. The Prime Minister needs to deal with her “Johnson problem” now.

“Backseat driving.”

That’s how Home Secretary Amber Rudd called Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s column in the Telegraph, in which he set out his vision for a “bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit”.

Rather than bolster Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans, Johnson sought to undermine them. The timing for this piece to be published couldn’t be more rotten.

Johnson came out with his own ideas for Brexit on the day Britain had faced another terrorist attack and a week before Theresa May was due to deliver a big speech in Florence.

At a time the government and society as a whole need to stick together, Johnson shows he’s not a team player. It’s understandably led to a lot of criticism from fellow cabinet ministers and MPs.

May will have to deal with her “Johnson problem” now or risk being undermined every step of the way.

Johnson’s made a serious error of judgement by challenging May’s authority at such an inconvenient moment.

If there’s ever a time for Theresa May to demote the former Mayor of London, it is now.

Pragmatism over principle

Boris Johnson is an opportunist if there ever was one. He’s frequently proved he’s not a man of principle but of pragmatism.

The most obvious example of this is him writing two different articles ahead of last year’s EU referendum. In one he backed staying in the EU, in the other he proposed the opposite.

Seeing more opportunities to advance his career by going against his old pals David Cameron and George Osborne – who campaigned to remain – Johnson joined the opposing side.

Johnson tied his political career to Brexit. If the vote had gone the other way, it might have been him who’d now be editing a newspaper and not George Osborne.

But Johnson’s side came out on top and he became the favourite to take over the Prime Minister’s job. A Shakespearean betrayal by his ally Michael Gove caused Johnson to pull out of the Conservative leadership race. Theresa May profited.

By giving Johnson a high-profile position in her cabinet, May hoped to keep him from rebelling. Unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped him from undermining her from the inside.

More than once Johnson has publicly gone against his PM and Brexit Secretary David Davis. May then had to clarify the Foreign Secretary didn’t speak for the cabinet.

Not a good look.

With May’s authority weakened after a disastrous general election, Johnson smells blood. His rhetoric of the past few weeks sounds like a politician on the campaign trail.

Johnson keeps talking about “taking back control of our borders, cash, laws”. He repeats Britain will leave the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, the single market and the customs union.

He’s even resurrected the claim Britain can spend an extra £350m a week on the NHS, something the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove, has called “a clear misuse of official statistics.”

Johnson may be ambitious but the timing of his latest attack on May has caused bad blood among his colleagues.

Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, for example, made it clear he didn’t appreciate the “megaphone-delivered advice” and called on senior ministers to let Davis get on with his job unencumbered.

The fact that Johnson was only the tenth most popular minister among Conservative party members last week doesn’t bode well for him either.

It’s one of the reasons he isn’t the threat to Theresa May’s power he used to be.

Theresa May’s last chance to save her job

The cynical timing of his latest effort to chip away at May’s authority has left a bad taste in the mouths of his colleagues.

Fellow MPs aren’t likely to rally around someone who’s attacking his own leader at a time the national security level is upgraded to “critical”.

Besides, by doubling down on his hard Brexit stance, Johnson will already struggle to get the support he needs.

While Johnson will be assured of the support from hardline Brexiteers, this doesn’t look enough to replace May. They’re a minority in parliament and on the streets.

It doesn’t help that he’s now repeating demonstrably false claims, which makes him an easy target to attack. It only serves to strengthen the view that he’s all talk and no substance.

His track record as Foreign Secretary won’t help him either. He’s frequently had to defend ill-advised remarks directed at foreign politicians.

Considering that’s basically the opposite of his job description, I doubt it’s convinced the public of his statesmanlike qualities and diplomatic finesse.

If May wants to re-establish her authority, she’ll have to take action against Johnson. The PM may have feared his popularity before but the mood is turning on the former London mayor.

What’s also speaking in her favour is that Johnson’s unlikely to launch a new bid unless he’s absolutely sure he can win. Presently that’s not the case and he won’t like a repeat of last year’s events.

Johnson’s losing support from cabinet ministers and the public is growing tired of his gimmicks now that he’s representing Britain abroad.

We’re at an important time in the Brexit negotiations as Theresa May and David Davis are looking to break the deadlock in the negotiations. This will be crucial to bring the talks into the next phase so that trade matters can be discussed.

The last thing May would have wanted to do right now is replace a high-profile cabinet minister, but Johnson may have left her no choice.

The PM can either deal with her Foreign Secretary now or she can watch him undermine her at every opportunity he sees fit.

And let’s not forget it’s not just Johnson who’s growing restless. On Sunday Davis admitted he’d been asked to plot a leadership challenge by a group of Tory MPs.

It shows Theresa May is on thin ice. It looks like this is her last chance to save her job.

If May lets Johnson off the hook, she could appear weak enough to invite a leadership challenge at next month’s Conservative Party Conference.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, it might be necessary for May to chuck backseat driver Johnson out of the car.

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