In the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to put myself inside Boris Johnson’s head. I start from the assumption that the main thing that Boris Johnson cares about is Boris Johnson. And it’s clear that he’s been aiming at the top job for many years. At first sight, he has messed up badly. He finds himself in an unenviable position: through several disloyal acts, both by him and by his ‘trusted associates’, he’s manoeuvred himself into a corner from which a lesser man would find it impossible to escape. Brexit is likely to be a disaster. He knows that; he wrote about it on many occasions in the past. His last-minute switch to the leave campaign was motivated entirely by the lure of being the biggest fish in that rather polluted pond. It has been suggested that the game plan was to lose narrowly, becoming the chief thorn in Cameron’s side, an irritation that could no longer be ignored. His expression on 24 June was a picture to be cherished. He knew he was in big trouble.
But this is Boris we’re talking about. A man who can make a PR triumph out of being ignominiously stuck in mid-air on a broken aerial runway. A man who uses deliberately tousled hair to defuse his many carefully crafted ‘gaffes’, each of which gains him yet more love and adulation from an ever-adoring fan base. Of the core Brexit team, he’s the only one not looking totally stressed out. Let me suggest why.
How can Boris effect his escape from the mess he’s dropped himself — and the rest of us — in? The first handhold in the wall of the hole he’s dug is his current job. As Foreign Secretary, he’s not directly involved in or responsible for the Brexit negotiations. That poisoned chalice has been handed to David Davis, with Liam Fox as Trade Secretary in a supporting rôle, and May as a very controlling boss. This leaves Boris free to be critical should he choose to be, without any hint of self-criticism. And, I predict, over the next 12 to 18 months his rhetoric will become gradually more critical. Over Gibraltar, for example, he’s set himself up as a staunch defender of the status quo, just in case May and Fox give any hint of compromise.
The second rung in Boris’s climb to freedom is Theresa May herself. There are rumours that she brooks no negative vibes, even in Cabinet meetings. This is a huge weakness. If she’s not willing to examine problems, she has no chance of mitigating them. The result will be an ever more ludicrous set of ‘solutions’, and a drift towards a harder and harder Brexit, simply because that’s the path of least resistance. The harder the Brexit, the bigger the segment of Leave supporters who will be uncomfortable. She’s an easy target for anyone brave enough to take aim at it.
The final handhold for Boris’s climb is in many ways the most straightforward: a changing demographic. As many commentators have pointed out, time is on the Remainers’ side: as more young people reach voting age and more old voters fall off the register, there will be a natural swing to Remain, which a savvy politician can easily use to his advantage. And Boris is nothing if not a very savvy politician.
So, here’s how I forsee it could play out. In the unlikely event that Brexit looks like being a success, Boris will mostly keep his head down and play the long game. On the other hand, if reality bites as we Remainers fear, over the next year or so Boris will become increasingly critical of the progress of negotiations. There are plenty of sacred cows that May will be forced to put at risk, issues that are dear to the hearts of many Remainers and Leavers alike: peace in Northern Ireland, the dissolution of the Union, the NHS, jobs, cost of living, to name but a few. A ‘sane’ voice speaking out on these issues will find much approval. When the time is right (I guess around 16-18 months into the A50 notice period) Boris will break ranks completely. He’ll support the democratic right to a further referendum, and campaign actively for Remain. Remainers, being for the most part pragmatic people, will hold their noses and gratefully accept his help. If, as would be likely in this scenario, Remain wins the new referendum convincingly, Boris is almost certain to become Prime Minster. Job done. You heard it here first. In that scenario, the Tories will probably win the next election too. Well, every silver lining has a cloud.