Theresa May is powerless to act over Boris Johnson’s calculated Brexit move
In a deliberate move, a brazen Boris Johnson is attempting to buttress his reputation whilst undermining his leader, says Anushka Asthana
In last year’s EU referendum, Vote Leave staff enjoyed watching the furore caused by their central claim that Brexit would deliver £350m a week back to the NHS. The controversy over the figure only served to plant its seed more firmly in the mind of voters across the country.
Did they mind each time statisticians or remain campaigners questioned the validity of the calculation? Of course not. Not only did it mean more headlines, and broadcast mentions, but it also spurned a debate over what the real figure might be: £250m? £100m? £50m?
All of which sound fairly eye-watering, and successfully diverted focus from the arguments of a number of economists about the possibility that leaving the EU could result in a financial deficit. Vote Leave knew how effective the claim was.
I saw its power myself by sitting through focus groups, organised by Britain Thinks for the Guardian, where people were shown literature with the £350m figure and its annual equivalent.
“If we vote leave we can get £20bn back for the NHS each year and make Britain great again,” said one woman, poking a finger at the Vote Leave poster.
Perhaps (even subconsciously) aware of how key the strategy had been in the Brexit campaign, Remainers became increasingly infuriated by it. When I tweeted, on the morning of 24 June 2016, that Nigel Farage said there wouldn’t be that amount of money available – and admittedly he was part of a separate leave campaign that hadn’t flouted the figure – my message was retweeted some 13,500 times within hours.
And still now the very mention of that number sends social media comments viral. All of which was clearly understood by the home secretary (and once arch-Remainer) Amber Rudd, when she said on Sunday that she didn’t want to engage with the Leave campaigners “device” to get people discussing the issue.
So when Boris Johnson dropped the £350m bomb into his 4,200-word vision for Brexit he knew exactly what he was doing. This former journalist must have understood how his words would be packaged up on a newspaper front page (read – don’t forget – by many of those Tory members who will be able to vote in a future leadership election).
Moreover, I understand that his motivation in writing the piece was nervousness at rumours that Theresa May was ready to offer continued British payments after Brexit. Hence, his argument that this would be unacceptable to leave voters.
After all, Johnson is the Brexit torchbearer, who has been hurt by allegations of lies over promises about health service spending.
Those promises weren’t made by May or David Davis, not Liam Fox or Philip Hammond. It is the foreign secretary who has a reputation to protect, which is perhaps why he felt able to enter into all-out-war over figures with the head of the country’s statistics watchdog.
And yet, even with a desire to stick to prior promises, it is pretty extraordinary that Johnson would have allowed that piece to be published, without the approval of no10. More astonishing still, is that the prime minister is powerless to act.
So, in one swoop, the foreign secretary was both able to infuriate millions of Remain supporters by repeating what they consider to be a lie (and in doing so placing the figure back on the front pages) and undermine his party leader days before the most important speech of her premiership. His intervention has also wholly overshadowed her trip to Canada and New York.
When May retorted with “Boris is Boris” to reporters on a place headed to Ottawa, one can only imagine what – after a week like this – her actual definition of Johnson extends to.
Anushka Asthana is co-Political Editor at the Guardian
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.