Why is Boris Johnson taking his punishment beating from Downing Street rather than trumpeting an alternative Brexit plan?
At the start of this week Boris Johnson was slapped down by Number 10 for failing to come up with an alternative Brexit plan, with officials saying his anti-Chequers newspaper column “offered no new ideas to respond to”.
Just as he did during the fallout from a previous column about the burqa, he has taken his punishment beating quietly – almost too quietly, when you consider his ambition, May’s vulnerability and the fact he clearly has thoughts on what the next steps should be.
Johnson famously loves the limelight and wants to be PM – but he also, perhaps less famously, is somewhat sensitive to criticism.
His short-lived leadership campaign, which ended when ally Michael Gove announced he was also running, has cast a long shadow, and sources suggest the experience left him nervous about future moves to take the top job – as well as trusting the wrong people.
These days, magnetic personality aside, he has a phalanx of critics no less sizeable than the current Prime Minister’s.
So the fact that he is the preferred leadership candidate for Brexiters including the European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as grassroots campaigners, is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, he will revel in the adoration. The 1000-person “Chuck Chequers” rally, hosted by the activist website ConHome – whose readers most definitely back the Blond Bombshell – will almost certainly be the highlight of next month’s party conference.
But specific manoeuvres could backfire spectacularly at this stage, and if he takes even the slightest misstep it could put an end to his Prime Ministerial ambitions for good.
This is one of the reasons why, sources have indicated, he has not yet publicly backing the two alternative Brexit plans being published this month – the ERG proposal, soon to be drip fed to the press over a series of days, and one being readied by numerous trade experts and supported by former Brexit secretary David Davis.
Although he was at one stage planning to take a more pivotal role in presenting an alternative Brexit plan, it is now thought Johnson will “slightly float above it all”, allowing political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby – who worked on both his mayoral campaigns – to get busy in the background and make interventions when appropriate.
There are two games afoot, although often they are conflated: secure a hard (or “clean”) Brexit and make Johnson Prime Minister. The danger is those working behind the scenes overplay their hand and lose both.
Indeed, his position is even more challenging than the matter of Brexit. It’s hard to see how May could survive if Chequers doesn’t, but if Johnson topples her directly, on the alter of Brexit, then the fallout among more moderate Tory MPs would be too much for him to withstand.
So he takes the beatings, picks the moments to best intervene and hopes to “float” towards the top job.