Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary: How different things could have been (UK In Italy CC BY-ND 2.0)
Remember the awful weekend after the Brexit vote? No street parties, no fireworks, the Brexiteers in chaos, embarrassed — afraid, almost — to celebrate their victory, uncertain what to do now David Cameron had walked off the job. Remainers were throwing a Heath-style sulk: it was the old, the poor, the ignorant and the racists wot won it; they didn’t deserve the vote. The Remainers demanded another referendum, threatened to block Brexit in the Commons. If that didn’t work, the Euro-dominated Lords would do the undemocratic deed.
Then, shortly before nominations for the Tory leadership closed, everything changed. Michael Gove called a press conference. He had agonised, he confessed, over whether he should stand against Boris Johnson. Finally, he had come to the conclusion that Boris alone had the sheer guts, drive and charisma to bind up the wounds, pull the nation together and drive Brexit through: “I’m backing Boris and Britain.” Cut to Boris’s press conference. He praised his “saintly chum, the Gover” for his self-sacrifice, consistent loyalty and decency.
Then came the bombshell. “Please welcome . . . Theresa May.” There was a gasp as she marched down the hall, heels clicking, strode onto the platform and announced that she was withdrawing her nomination. The country urgently needed a new leader, not months of Tory infighting. Brexit meant Brexit, and that was why it was right and proper that the new PM should be a Brexit campaigner. She too gave Boris her confidence, admiration and loyalty.
Of course there had been a deal. Boris had called May that morning and told her that, if she withdrew, she would be his deputy prime minister and minister of national renewal. She could create a great new body, the National Recovery Agency, similar to Roosevelt’s NRA. Unprecedented powers, he chuntered, action this day: full responsibility for regenerating the country’s decaying infrastructure, railways, airports, roads, housing, energy policy, plus the structure and funding of the NHS.
“Oodles of dosh, old girl. You’re going to spend, spend, spend.” But, he warned, if she did not withdraw, the battle would be bloody, and, whatever the polls currently showed, she would lose. “I’ll have to remind all those activists that you are the lady who said they belonged to the ‘nasty party’, who, year after year, without apology, presided over appalling immigration figures, and who campaigned to keep us in the EU. Sorry, but you’re no Maggie Thatcher.”
That evening the new Tory leader was all over the telly. Statesmanlike, Boris refused to discuss his Cabinet “unless and until Her Majesty is minded to invite me to form a government.” As for EU immigrants already working here lawfully, all decent Brits knew their right to stay must be protected. “No ifs and no buts. We’re not racists. But the EU will be expected to treat our citizens now resident in Europe with the same common decency.” Then he rallied his troops: “We won, fair and square. Ignore the Moaning Minnies who sold Project Fear. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Referendum Day would be renamed Independence Day and become a statutory bank holiday. All new passports would have “the proper stiff blue British cover” of yesteryear. And, grinning broadly, he said he would “stick Nigel where the sun don’t shine . . .” (long pause) “in the Lords.”
So, royal hand duly kissed, who was in and who was out? Theresa May got everything promised her. Gove (“Treuer Michael” Boris called him) went to the Foreign Office. Iain Duncan Smith, aided by Liam Fox and David Davis, was given the Exchequer. Bill Cash, that fine constitutional lawyer who had spent his parliamentary career obsessively fighting the EU, got Justice. Nigel Lawson was recalled as Minister without Portfolio with special responsibity for advising the Prime Minister on the coordination of Withdrawal. Lord Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, became Defence Secretary. Then came the widely-approved appointments of two courageous Labour Brexiteers: German-born Gisela Stuart went to the Foreign Office to handle Brexit negotiations, Frank Field became Home Secretary. Asked whether they were still members of the Labour Party, Boris replied: “No idea, old fruit! Chinese proverb: doesn’t matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice.” He then announced he needed 100 days to set out his detailed strategy. “No summer hols for Team GB, no beach for Boris, no mountain walks. We’ll all be at our desks.”
Three months later he delivered his first prime ministerial broadcast.
Item: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would be invoked immediately, using the Royal Prerogative, triggering the two-year withdrawal process.
Item: In January, the European Communities Act 1972 would be repealed, speeding things up by restoring full sovereignty to parliament immediately.
Item: All the laws, regulations and directives imposed by Brussels would be deemed — in one short new Act — to be part of English law, giving the government time to repeal or amend them at its convenience.
Item: The government formally accepted that the UK would be outside the single market — like the rest of the world, which traded with the EU. And we, like the rest of the world, would negotiate the bilateral and multilateral trade deals which suited us.
Item: That would put an automatic end to unlimited immigration from the EU. From now on we would take those we need.
Item: Theresa’s NRA was gearing up nicely and would help kick-start a boom.
And finally there was good old Gover. Round the world in 80 days, more or less, winning friends and influencing people. Inspired appointment. And if it hadn’t been for him backing off at the crucial moment from the leadership race, none of this would have been possible. Memo to self: better invite Michael and Sarah round to Number Ten immediately after the broadcast. Never take your friends for granted.