When Boris Johnson delivered his long-awaited verdict on Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal today, it was like he’d never been away.
All his old verbal tricks and tics were there. He did his usual call-and-response technique (though it fell flat as he asked how many of this group of business people had voted for Brexit and only one stuck a hand up), and he delivered his jibes at the BBC and against “woke political correctness”.
There was the attack on Keir Starmer, the “human bollard”. He even lifted wholesale from his 2021 party conference speech a tired gag about the new defence alliance between the UK, Australia and America, saying there was “raucous squawkus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”.
But of course it was Johnson’s attack on Sunak’s Brexit deal that many of us were really waiting for and he duly delivered, saying he would “find it very difficult to vote for something like this myself, because I believed we should’ve done something very different”.
It was notable that Johnson himself referred to this as his “punchline”, because this was indeed all about the performance of rebellion rather than a rebellion that will make any difference to the PM’s deal in Parliament.
Crucially, he was punching the bruise of the idea that Sunak had been a backstabbing, disloyal colleague. The real drawback with that approach though is that plenty of MPs view the latest Northern Ireland deal as a real breakthrough. More importantly, the danger of Sunak’s audacious display of competent, focused governance and creative diplomacy is that it leaves everyone thinking that he’s the PM who really “got Brexit done”. And without the lingering sore of that huge issue being unresolved, what’s the point of Johnson at all?
While he may be a brilliant salesman and comedy turn, his fundamental problem is that he’s always been better at protest than power because exercising power requires abilities – like consistency and a mastery of detail – that Johnson’s always lacked.
That’s why he was laying down a marker of Brexit purity, to be recited in future. Johnson is used to a sell-out crowd, in both senses of the word: fans who pay to see him and who buy his line that Sunak is selling out the very essence of Brexit.
From John Major to David Cameron and Theresa May, the idea of a Tory Prime Minister selling out the UK to Brussels has been a most potent message to the Tory grassroots for decades now and the current occupant is just the latest target.
The bigger betrayal narrative he wants to fuel, however, is about himself and not just Brexit. Clearly still seething at Sunak and all those MPs who helped engineer his downfall, Johnson’s only direct reference to the current PM was that he spent “an awful lot of time” trying to convince his then Chancellor to slash taxes to make Brexit Britain sellable around the world.
He also pointed out that the Tories were only a few points behind Keir Starmer in the polls under his premiership. Although he said “I think it very, very unlikely I’ll need to do anything big in politics [again]”, the threat was left hanging in the air that if needs must, he would act.
When he said “I have a deadline to meet” it sounded not so much like the billions of words being demanded by his publishers for books already promised, but the deadline of the next general election to get himself reinstalled as Tory leader. He lacks the work ethic to be leader of the Opposition, so is in a race against time to become leader again. A Tory meltdown in this May’s local elections would help him, but the real boost to his fortunes would be a repeat meltdown in the May elections of 2024 – just six months before the big national fight against Labour.
That’s why today felt more like a tactical retreat over his Northern Ireland Protocol bill, rather than a surrender. He can see he lacks the numbers right now in his party to carry on a serious fight, but those numbers might swell when facing down the barrel of the loss of their own seats, not council seats.
The difficulty for Johnson is that his conduct in office means that his pulling power with the public is no longer what it was. He told his audience that a jogger had shot past him on his pre-dawn run today with “a cheery London greeting of ‘W*nker!’”
Yet it’s the abuse that Johnson is these days directing at his successor in No 10 that unnerves some MPs. He’s become the Brexiteer equivalent of the man he used to love to hate, the noisy ardent Euro campaigner Steve Bray who has become a regular irritant outside Westminster with his amped-up protest.
Johnson will always have a media megaphone, but with many of the public just wanting to move on from the Brexit wars and sort out the NHS and cost of living crisis, even his own MPs may think he’s a slightly unhinged individual whistling into the wind.