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Sending Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office is bad for Britain, good for Theresa May

Britain's new Prime Minister is moving to ensure if Brexit goes wrong, the Brexiteers will share the blame

Towards the end of his term in office, a despairing Bill Clinton complained to Tony Blair that the reason for George W. Bush’s political success was that “he criticised one thing on the right. He is making them think he is saving them from the right.”

That is part of what makes Theresa May Labour’s most dangerous opponent. Her attacks on her own party, the police and her efforts to increase the number of women and minority Conservative MPs, make her a trickier foe than any of the politicians she overcame to replace David Cameron.

But she also showed the other reason why the left should fear that she will be resident in Downing Street for a longtime with her canny first moves to form her Cabinet. Her early backers in the Cabinet were rewarded – Philip Hammond, the biggest beast to endorse her bid for the leadership, moves from the Foreign Office to the Treasury, and Amber Rudd moves from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the Home Office – with the much-expected installation of Hammond to the Treasury no less significant for it being advertised in advance.

Just as with Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to overrule many of his own allies and put John McDonnell in as shadow chancellor, May will start with the all-important unity between Downing Street and the Treasury without which no government can prosper. (Blair and Brown were divided over who should lead the Labour party and the Euro, but united on almost everything else of substance.)

Crucially, on the issue that will dominate May’s government – the negotiation of Britain’s exit from the European Union – Hammond and her have been at one. While the Treasury is not an official player in Brexit talks, as Harold Wilson once quipped,  “whoever is in office, the Treasury is in power”, and that will remain the case.

But the really clever moves were around Brexit. The big difficulty for Britain is that there is a path to the country flourishing outside the European Union – it just involves breaking almost all of the promises made by Vote Leave. May risks being smashed up by the boosters of Brexit, who will, whatever happens, blame her for muffing up the negotiations – not them or their allies in the press for a mendacious campaign.

In as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is David Davis, an Outer of long and respected vintage in the Conservative party, and, having served as Europe minister for three years, has serious experience of the European Union. In at the newly-created Department for International Trade is Liam Fox, another Brexiteer, whose friendship May has cultivated over long years – the reward for which was his immediate endorsement following his exit from the Tory race and with it another signal that Tory supporters of a Leave vote could trust May to deliver Brexit.

Those two appointments are the beginning of the three-card trick with which May has rewarded and neutralised her most dangerous opponent, Boris Johnson. Johnson has been given the Foreign Office, notionally the grandest office – and certainly the grandest building – in the British government. But he has lost responsibility for negotiating the terms of British exit, trade is now the responsibility of Fox, and most Prime Ministers stray freely into the Foreign Office brief.

Johnson’s many eruptions and indiscretions over his long career as a columnist will be a cause for occasional embarrassment  for Downing Street. But it will keep him out of the country, unable to sustain a rebel following in the parliamentary party, and crucially, makes the Brexiteers responsible for the failures of Brexit.

On this evidence, Theresa May will be Prime Minister for as long as she wants.  

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

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Something is missing from the UK’s draft transition agreement with the EU

The talks could go to extra time.

The European Union has published its draft transition agreement with the United Kingdom, setting out the terms of the standstill period after March 2019, when the UK will have formally left the EU, but its new relationship with the bloc has not yet been negotiated.

There is a lot in there, and the particularly politically-difficult part as far as the government is concerned is fishing: under the agreement, the United Kingdom will remain subject to the Common Fisheries Policy during the period of transition, and two Scottish Conservative MPs, both of whom have large fishing communitiesin their seats, are threatening to vote against the deal as it stands.

But the more interesting part is what isn’t in there: any mechanism to extend the transition should the United Kingdom and the EU be unable to agree a new relationship by 2020. This is something that people on both sides believe is likely to be needed – but as it stands, there is no provision to do so.

The political problem for Theresa May is that some pro-Brexit MPs fear that transition will never end (which is why she persists in calling it an “implementation period” in public, despite the fact it is as clear as day that there will be nothing to be implemented, as the future relationship will only have been agreed in broad outline). So finding the right moment to include the ability to make transition open-ended is tricky.

The danger for the government (and everyone else) is that the moment never arrives, and that the United Kingdom either ends up making a agreement in haste, or not at all, in 2020.

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