Some early thoughts about a day and a night which made sleep almost impossible. The mind spins with theories and counter theories. The media are already screaming about the ‘Rise of the Brexiteers’, which means that everything I’m about to say might make little sense because, watching events unfold, little of that struck me as being quite true. ‘The Rise of the Brexiteers’ is a convenient holding title for something that is far more interesting.
There’s certainly a sense that the first appointments of the May era have placed Brexit proponents in outward facing roles. Yet throughout the EU referendum campaign, there were strong and weak advocates of Brexit. Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, and Iain Duncan Smith were three with the whitest knuckles whenever a person mentioned £350 million. On the weaker side were Boris Johnson and David Davies. It means that it’s suddenly quite significant from where May has picked her leavers. Only Liam Fox lives on the hard Eurosceptic side of the Tory Party. These appointments suggest that we won’t be rushing towards an immediate Brexit and whatever Brexit we achieve will be carefully negotiated. Also, some of this feels like a counter to the chance of a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats have already promised to run that promise past voters at the next generation election and, Owen Smith, now challenging Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the Labour Party, has promised the same. At the very least, the next general election could well be a proxy second referendum.
Amber Rudd going to the Home Office was predicted. Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office was not and is naturally the big talking point. The appointment was greeted with much ridicule on both social and conventional media and it certainly takes a little time to work through the logic. It might well be clever political strategy. It immediately puts him on a chain, though whether Johnson would have caused trouble from outside the cabinet is questionable given May’s moderate overture to the nation. Johnson might have endeared himself to the grass roots with his successful Brexit campaign but he’s always been a One Nation Tory as well as something of a wet Brexiteer. Speaking outside the Foreign Office last night, Boris sounded a little bit more like Boris. A May government might mean that Boris is returning to his usual beat to the centre right. By a quite circuitous route, Johnson has ended up where he probably wanted to be or, at least, is quite happy to be for the moment.
An alternative reading is that the Foreign Office gives Johnson a perfect opportunity to either live up to his billing as a star of the Party or to live down to the widely circulated rumours about his lack of seriousness. Prime Minister May might have given Johnson enough rope to hang his political career, though, equally, she’s presented him with perhaps his best chance to prove himself a future candidate for the top job.
As to Johnson’s suitability, I wouldn’t be surprised if he found the job to his liking. Much of the work of the Foreign Office is done by diplomats. Where Johnson might shine is in the business he does rather well. He is personable, has a certain charm, speaks countless languages, and is, by nature, a citizen of the world. It’s easy to overplay his insulting President Obama. The President is a grown man. He can take it and he understands the grubby reality of politics. Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary might not be as crazy as it sounds. It might even be inspired.
David Davis is similarly well picked. A solid no nonsense politician, he was in line to be Leader before David Cameron seduced the party back in 2005. He’s another that doesn’t fit the profile of the hard right winger that some would wish to draw for him. Back in 2008, he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet complaining about the erosion of civil liberties and has become an outspoken critic of the UK’s treatment of terror suspects. He has also been one of the most vocal critics on the nature of surveillance and one of the few who seems to understand the practical effects of the governments Draft Communications Data Bill. He has also voted against raising student tuitions. On some social issues, he has a mixed record: voting against same sex marriage but voting for assisted dying, for greater regulation on gambling, voted against the hunting ban, did not support ID cards but has voted against green measures to prevent climate change. If he’s on the right then he’s one of those free thinkers that aren’t driven by ideology but some inner moral compass. It means that he might be unpredictable and, above all, pragmatic, which sometimes amounts to the same thing.
What is clear is that Theresa May has immediately turned around the Tory Party and pushed it back towards the centre ground of British politics. I said a few weeks ago that I thought the next election would be won by the first party to sort itself out and marginalise its extreme elements. Labour has had a few years to move to the centre and it has failed repeatedly. May has seen her chance and she is taking it. If she succeeds, the Labour Party splitting might come as something of a kindness since they are currently looking to be out of power for a decade or more.
It all makes me wonder about Nigel Farage’s tweet last night: ‘The appointment of @DavidDavisMP & @LiamFoxMP to Brexit and International Trade roles are inspired choices. I feel more optimistic now.’ I’m not saying that his optimism is misplaced but I do wonder if the coming months will see politics become deeply political, with intrigues the likes of which you normally see in an episode of Game of Thrones. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is a great soundbite but, as has been often repeated in days past and will be repeated for many days in the future: nobody knows what the hell it means. Nobody, that is, except our new Prime Minister. With David Cameron we had a Prime Minister who sometimes tried to play the clever politician. With Theresa May we seem to have a clever politician who will now grasp the chance to be Prime Minister.