Michael made an odd assassin – but then Boris was a strange Caesar
Thursday 30 June 2016 19.11 BST
The Conservative establishment always calculates how to hold on to power – and swiftly neutralises its weakest link
“Et tu, Michael?” So said Boris Johnson’s father Stanley, plaintively, shortly after it emerged that his son was destined after all never to wear the crown.
And it’s true there is something about the ruthlessness of it all – Boris felled by his trusted friend and deputy, just as he was within touching distance of the thing he has wanted all his life – that takes the breath away.
This was perhaps the most vertiginous fall in modern political history. Seven days ago the party was bracing itself for BoJo, trying to bury all those nagging doubts about his suitability for high office. Now he is yesterday’s man, seemingly undone like all good tragic heroes by his own fatal flaws. What rich insights he now has to draw upon for his most pressing current professional commitment, a forthcoming biography of Shakespeare.
But if Michael Gove makes for an odd assassin then Boris makes for an even stranger Caesar. If anything he was always cast as the party’s Prince Hal, ready to cast off rakish immaturity and assume his rightful place as king when the moment demanded. It’s just that being king turns out to have been a great deal harder than it looked.
Ever since it became clear in the early hours of last Friday morning that Britain had thought the supposedly unthinkable, Theresa May’s camp has been successfully positioning her as the “serious person for serious times”, a cool head in a crisis. She might not exactly be brimming with charisma, they argue, but she’s proven over six years in a tough cabinet job that she knows what she’s doing; not like that slapdash, reckless Boris. Her promise to “just get on with the job in front of me”, as she put it during Thursday’s launch, was perfectly calibrated for an era when the job has never looked more daunting.
But while she has long tapped successfully into deep frustration about what the business minister Anna Soubry calls “these boys messing about” – a sense among Tory women that they’ve had enough of men playing power games while others do the heavy lifting – it was Boris who ended up making her case for her.
Thursday’s vote created a powerful feeling at Westminster that if you broke it, you own it; that having recklessly incited voters to shatter the political consensus, it was for Brexiters to sweep up the mess. What became painfully obvious very quickly was that Boris barely knew where to find the dustpan.
A shellshocked morning after a press conference during which he failed to reveal any coherent plan for what came next was followed by a Saturday spent playing cricket with Princess Diana’s brother rather than visibly knuckling down. When he did choose to set out his thinking on the way forward, it was not in a speech to the nation but in his own highly lucrative column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph – and what a muddled column it was.
In it, Johnson basically argued for a magical world of unicorns and rainbows; a deal where Britons were still free to live and work abroad but could somehow have curbs on European nationals coming here, and where we could remain part of the single market with all its economic benefits but not bother with all the cumbersome red tape. It was as if the real Boris – the liberal Londoner who could preach the economic benefits of immigration to elderly Tory activists and get them eating out of his hand – was trying to reconcile himself with the Boris he had been forced to play for the last six months and failing dismally.
Remainers feared the “have your cake and eat it” plan would not survive five minutes of contact with the enemy. But it was the fury of leavers that really blew the doors off.
The leave campaign had indicated throughout that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and thus ending the free movement of people. Could it be that in his heart of hearts he never really wanted to leave Europe, and was now trying desperately to ensure that Britain did not?
To make matters worse, when angry Tory leavers started asking what the hell was going on, the response from the Boris camp was confusion. Boris, we were told, had been “tired” when he wrote the column, so maybe it wasn’t phrased right.
The reality of how such policymaking on the hoof might sound coming from a prime minister – someone who can wipe billions off a stock market overnight with one clumsy U-turn – began sinking in. And with the May camp now signalling that the home secretary would be tougher on immigration, the ground began to shift. By Wednesday Boris was no longer the nailed-on favourite, the candidate ambitious MPs felt they had to back whatever their reservations.
Boris’s second great mistake, however, was to risk making the rightwing press look ridiculous. Both the Mail and the Sun backed Brexit, promising their readers a rosy economic future where all their fears about immigration would be solved; now Boris looked as if he was weaselling out of the deal. The Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, has long regarded Boris as morally reprehensible, because of his serial affairs, and fundamentally unserious, enjoying a much warmer personal relationship with vicar’s daughter May. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, does not take kindly to being made a fool of. Enter perhaps Wednesday’s leaked email from Gove’s wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, urging her husband to get more specific assurances from Boris.
If he wouldn’t give the rightwing press everything it wanted then perhaps, of course, that is ultimately to Boris’s credit. Perhaps at the very last minute he was clumsily trying to do the right thing, to plot a more liberal way forward. Well, too late now, and it’s easy to conclude he has nobody to blame but himself. But perhaps that’s not quite the whole story.
If nothing else, what the last 24 hours have shown is the sheer ferocity of the Conservative party’s instinct for survival. But it is also testament to the enduring power of the Conservative establishment in Westminster, Fleet Street and beyond; to the ruthless efficiency with which it calculates how it can best hold on to power. It has correctly identified and neutralised its weakest link, even though until last week he was seemingly its strongest.
Already there are signs of leavers and remainers starting to bury differences over the referendum, moving on to the pragmatic question of who is best placed to manage the crisis ahead – and of course, where their own personal interests lie. The country may still be as broken and divided as it was last Thursday, and the Labour party perhaps even more so, but an apparently devastated Tory party is rebuilding itself at astonishing speed, like a cyborg regenerating. Life will go on. The king is dead. Long live the king or queen
quinta-feira, 30 de junho de 2016
A very British betrayal / Michael made an odd assassin – but then Boris was a strange Caesar
A very British betrayal
How the Brexit ‘dream ticket’ fell apart.
By TOM MCTAGUE and ALEX SPENCE 6/30/16, 11:25 PM CET
LONDON — It was just after 8:30 a.m. when Michael Gove’s “treachery” began to filter through.
Boris Johnson’s closest allies had gathered in a small office off Horseferry Road in central London, near the Grey Coat Hospital school where David Cameron and Gove, the justice secretary, send their children. The office had only just been rented as Johnson’s leadership campaign headquarters.
Johnson, the former mayor of London and the man who led Britain out of Europe, was set to announce his campaign to become prime minister just around the corner at Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel at 11:30 a.m.
It should have been a triumphant occasion, another step to Johnson’s coronation at the pinnacle of British politics.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race leaves Home Secretary Theresa May as the clear frontrunner.
Instead, Johnson’s advisers realized that their boss had been knifed by the man who was supposed to lead his leadership bid.
After a week that has turned British politics inside out, Westminster insiders thought there was nothing left to surprise them. Gove’s decision to withdraw from the “dream ticket” and stand for the leadership himself was stunning. What came next was even more dramatic: at 11:53 a.m, seven minutes before the cut-off to enter the Tory leadership race, Johnson pulled out.
Days after the Conservative Party lost its leader, humiliated by a referendum defeat masterminded by his old friends, the party had lost arguably its brightest star.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race leaves Home Secretary Theresa May as the clear frontrunner.
It also makes divorce from Brussels inevitable. Feint hopes that Britain under a Johnson premiership could negotiate a “Brexit light” deal with the EU have been extinguished.
The remaining candidates — May, Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb – have all committed themselves to full Brexit with controls on free movement of people.
MPs, political aides and journalists, frazzled and sleep-deprived after days of turmoil, scrambled to get to the bottom of Gove’s startling betrayal. Suspicions fell on the role of Rupert Murdoch, whose Sun newspaper campaigned aggressively for Brexit. Days earlier, the media mogul told a conference of business leaders in London: “I’d be happy for Michael Gove to get it.”
Cracks in Johnson and Gove’s relationship appeared Wednesday when an email to Gove from his wife Sarah Vine was leaked to Sky News. In the message, Vine, a Daily Mail columnist, urged her husband to play hardball with Johnson, and to withdraw support unless he received specific assurances about his plans. “Do not concede your ground,” she wrote. “Be your stubborn best.”
Vine’s influence over her husband’s thinking has been “significant,” said a journalist who has known the couple for years.
Party members wouldn’t back Johnson without Gove alongside him, Vine said, and nor would Murdoch or Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, another powerful, pro-Brexit tabloid.
That the support of Murdoch and Dacre figured so prominently in the Goves’ thinking sparked alarm among media-watchers who have long argued that the tabloids have too much influence over British politics.
Support ebbed away
When Johnson’s team gathered on Thursday morning Gove was still onside.
The previous night Gove and Johnson had attended the Conservative’s Summer Ball together at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in Fulham, West London, and then later went on the Tories’ 1922 party.
At the meeting Thursday, Lynton Crosby and Mark Fullbrook, the Australian campaign gurus, were joined by Johnson’s communications chief Will Walden, long-term ally Ben Wallace and a handful of other MPs backing his leadership bid.
When Gove’s decision came through the room was stunned.
“The surprise was genuine,” according to one person in the room. “The Boris ultras were shocked and really angry. Everything was thrown into the air. We were all trying to work out what the numbers were and whether Boris was going to make it into the final two.”
Over the next two hours, Johnson’s team frantically hit the phones trying to get hold of MPs who had previously pledged support.
“He’s given the dagger back to Michael” — Johnson ally
By 11:20 a.m. it was clear that allies had drifted away and he was in danger of failing to make it to the final run-off.
“Suddenly people weren’t answering their phones or had turned them off. Others were starting to go lukewarm. The momentum was all going the wrong way.”
Johnson, who was not at the office, made his final decision minutes before leaving for his campaign launch after taking soundings from his closest advisers.
“It was late in the day — it was certainly agonized over,” the Johnson ally said. “There were some people who wanted to fight on. But the worry was that Boris would not have prospered as much as he wanted. He would’ve been diminished in the process. He was trying to bring unity but carrying on would’ve been divisive.”
“It was a bloody brave thing to do. The easy thing would’ve been to carry on and then pull out over the weekend. In the full glare of the world, he stood down.”
The ally said that in doing so, he had damaged Gove “fatally,” by ensuring voters knew who was to blame: “He’s given the dagger back to Michael.”
“I don’t think he [Gove] thought Boris would pull out. When you think about it, what Boris has done is quite clever. He’s chosen not to run in a leadership election that he didn’t want to happen this soon. I thought it was a noble thing to have done.”
“Michael runs the risk of looking treacherous, I think that will stick.”
A European faultline
The Johnson ally said Gove pulled his support because he did not think the former London mayor committed himself to the Leave campaign or to fully pulling Britain out of the EU.
“Michael had a genuine wobble and decided to pull his support. They didn’t think Boris was focusing enough and in the end, he just couldn’t do it.”
On Europe, the source said, “Boris’s instincts were to get a compromise.”
But this was unacceptable to Gove and his ally Dominic Cummings, who had led the Brexit campaign Vote Leave. “The hand of Cummings is all over this. Boris considering EEA [membership of the European Economic Area] and budget contributions was not acceptable to them,” the source said. “He didn’t display enough clarity for them. Michael is much more ultra on Europe than Boris ever was.”
In his first interview after declaring his intention to stand, Gove suggested Johnson was not committed to leaving the EU. “After the referendum result last week I felt we needed someone to lead this country who believed heart and soul in leaving the European Union,” Gove told the BBC.
Doubts about whether a Johnson-led government would follow through on Brexit, or try to find a compromise, intensified after Johnson’s weekly column appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Monday.
The fury and sense of personal betrayal at Gove is intense.
He appeared to be trying to reassure all sides that there was no reason for panic. In doing so, his views on what should happen next seemed confused, contradictory, unachievable. Many Leavers worried that he was minimizing the need for immigration controls, which they regard as a red-line issue. It gave fuel to those who believed that Johnson had never really believed in quitting the EU in the first place.
Johnson’s allies pointed out that Gove had seen the column, suggested changes and approved it before it was published. On Thursday night ITV’s political editor Robert Peston obtained an email from Gove to Johnson, sent just after 6 p.m. on Sunday, suggesting amendments to the column. Gove’s verdict: “Overall very very good.”
Worse than the Telegraph column, a long-time Johnson supporter said, was the former mayor’s disappearance after the Brexit result. Johnson should have appeared in public immediately surrounded by “ordinary people,” this source said. As leader of the Leave campaign, he should have sought to calm anxieties. Instead, he gave one somber press conference with Gove a few hours after Cameron resigned, and spent the weekend out of sight.
“The moment was there to be seized,” the Johnson supporter said. “Instead, he went into hibernation and allowed other people to fill in the gaps.”
Adding to the shadowy role of media moguls in the back-room drama was the presence of Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of London’s Evening Standard and Independent, among Johnson’s entourage on Sunday, according to a source close to Johnson. Lebedev knew Johnson from his days as mayor of London and had regularly hosted him at his villa in Umbria, in Italy.
In a curious twist, Lebedev had also been present at Johnson’s house in February, when Johnson, Gove, and their wives decided over drinks that the two politicians would turn on their friend Cameron and front the Leave campaign, according to Vine’s column in the Daily Mail.
Gove alerted friends about his decision to run late Wednesday night. One member of Gove’s campaign received a call at 1 a.m. Thursday morning to be told he was needed to run Gove’s campaign.
The fury and sense of personal betrayal at Gove is intense.
The justice secretary had insisted repeatedly — including in a live TV appearance during the referendum campaign — that he did not want to become prime minister. However, privately he has not ruled it out, said a friend of the Goves. “It’s not that he’s suddenly decided.”
At Johnson’s press conference one Tory MP pointed the finger at George Osborne, who has a reputation for Westminster scheming. “The Chancellor’s fingerprints are all over this,” he said.
The MP Nadine Dorries, who had sat in the front row of Johnson’s press conference, had a blazing row with Gove in the Commons Thursday afternoon, according to one MP.
Cameron, meanwhile, was seen in parliament’s Members’ tea room looking “happy and relaxed.”