The Boris Show: what happens next?

A spot of travel and picking fights with Osborne will keep the London mayor amused once the Olympics are over.

Boris Johnson was hardly going to let the Olympics slip past him unexploited. As I noted in my column last week, the opportunity to use the games as a festival of self-promotion constitutes the Mayor of London's special reward for being the most electable Tory around. It is hard to imagine David Cameron basking in chants of "Dave! Dave! Dave!" at a vast Hyde Park rally. There is something about Johnson that zoinks -  so to speak - where other Conservatives don't.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has, I gather, been a source of some irritation to other politicians who are rarely sated with publicity. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has been raising hackles on Team Boris with his attempts to get in on the act. Olympics = sport = Jeremy, says the DCMS; London = Boris so back off, comes the City Hall rejoinder.

Meanwhile, provoking chatter about Boris's chances of succeeding Cameron was a poll for ConservativeHome naming him the activists' favourite. I stand by my column analysis that this is more a proxy expression of dismay and disappointment with the current leader than serious contemplation of Boris as Prime Minister. There are many obstacles to Johnson actually becoming leader (some of which I explore here; Steve Richards also picks up the theme in his Independent column today). 

Aside from the technical impediments - such as Boris not actually being an MP - there is the much more serious question of irresponsibility and pathological unseriousness. As one former Boris staffer said to me recently in a tone of weary incredulity aiming to kill off the idea of Prime Minister Johnson: "Just imagine him for a second in charge of defence."

Labour are certainly not taking the Johnson threat too seriously. The view at the top of the party is that Boris has reached his natural political altitude. One senior shadow cabinet minister told me at the time of the London mayoral election that Boris's success was an expression of the executive weakness of the post he was applying for. Voters could be relaxed about hiring a semi-comic figurehead because they fully understood that doing so had few real consequences. That would not be true in a general election where a crucial element in deciding how people vote (this shadow cabinet minister said) is "the fear factor" - what happens if this mildly ridiculous person actually wins?

Meanwhile, Boris is clearly determined to raise his candidacy beyond the novelty level. That aspiration is hardly helped by his hope, expressed to aides (as I revealed last week), of overseeing the city on a part time basis after the Olympics. But presumably he will use his free time to burnish his credentials as a serious national figure - and even an international one - capable of holding more august office. One way City Hall folk expect Boris to liven up  his job once the Olympic excitement has worn off is more foreign travel. It was felt in the first term that too much gallivanting around the globe as an "ambassador for London" would not have been received very well. One too many junkets and it might have looked as if Boris was neglecting his manor. But in the wake of the games, and the higher profile that has afforded the mayor, Boris now apparently feels liberated to go out and about drumming up investment from foreign companies and businesses. The idea is that the Magnetic Mayor's Roadshow will attract capital to the capital. He can then turn to the nation with a pitch along the lines: "Behold! London growing and replete with jobs. Witness how it has outperformed the rest of the country."

Another pursuit to pass the time productively will be picking fights with the Chancellor over funding for the capital. London as a region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and Boris intends to haggle noisily to secure, as he sees it, a bigger share of his constituents' cash. That also creates ample opportunities for the sport described by one source as "jabbing George in the ribs". It is only once the Olympics are gone that the games really begin.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has been a source of some irritation to other politicians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.