Boris's message: if I can run London, I can run Britain

The Mayor cleverly presented his record of governing London as an audition for one day running the country.

Boris Johnson didn’t need to be disloyal to David Cameron in his speech to the Conservative conference today and he wasn’t. He was merely very discourteous. Picking up reports that the Prime Minister had referred to him as a “blonde mop” he repaid the compliment in vigorous back-handed style. Cameron, he said, is a “broom” sweeping up Labour’s mess. George Osborne, he added, is a dustpan.

Johnson knows Cameron well enough to understand that nothing gets under his skin quite like lèse majesté. The informality, picking the Prime Minister out of the crowd, calling him “Dave” and wishing him a happy birthday with a wilful lack of deference will have been exquisitely irritating. The  over-chummy manner of delivery contained a deadly whiff of ridicule. The Mayor of London didn’t attack the Prime Minister on policy but nonetheless found a way to diminish his stature. 

That served the underlying purpose of Johnson’s speech which was to present himself not necessarily as a current rival to Cameron but as his equal nonetheless. The bulk of Boris’s speech was a celebration of his record in running London with an emphasis on economic vibrancy. He talked about creating a “platform for growth” – developing young people’s skills, finding them jobs, developing infrastructure, boosting exports and attracting investment. It was optimistic in tone and ambitious in scope, yet cleverly contained in the Mayor’s own geographical remit.

There can be little doubt what the objective was here. Boris is setting up his record of governing London as an audition for one day running the country. He was rehearsing a celebration of what can be achieved in the capital – both in terms of beating Labour and kick-starting the economy – as a blueprint for how Conservatives should feel more confident about what they can achieve as a national party. (Whether or not his record will ever justify such exuberance is an entirely different matter.)

He said nothing that sounded like an explicit threat to Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s aides affect to be pointedly relaxed about Boris’s ambitions. The Number 10 line is that Johnson will obviously serve his full term as Mayor, by which time the next election will already be decided. If he wants to do something after that – enter parliament or aspire to be leader – it is a matter for future conjecture that is, in political terms, so distant as to be unworthy of further comment.

Privately, Number 10 sources argue that if Cameron wins the next election, he stays on as leader. If he doesn’t he will almost certainly step down and then Boris might or might not engineer a way to make himself a candidate for the succession. Either way, a straight Boris v Dave contest will never happen. Ergo, Johnson is not a threat to Cameron.

It is a plausible argument but one that ignores the slow drip effect on party morale and Prime Ministerial authority of having, in the wings and periodically intruding on stage, an ebullient, popular Tory figurehead who pointedly refuses to genuflect before the leader. At the moment, Downing Street’s approach is to ignore Boris and laugh along through gritted teeth. Before long, Cameron will surely feel the need to find a more active strategy for cutting the London Mayor down to size.

Boris Johnson delivers his speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.