David Malcolm

Naked Politics Blogger

Perhaps this is now old-fashioned thinking but when multiple people tell you that your argument is flawed, then you would think that you shouldn’t use it anymore. Boris Johnson clearly missed the memo on that one as he recently revived the much-dismissed claim that the £350m that we apparently pay into the EU will go into the NHS. Of course, you might ask why stop at that figure when the DUP gets £1 billion pounds? Could the money go to deprived areas in Wales or Cornwell instead, like most EU funding to Britain did? What about farming subsidies?

However, this raises a bigger question: After months of staying quiet, Boris Johnson suddenly talks about Brexit by using a much-dismissed claim. But why now? What’s changed?

The answer is probably much more complex but many suspect that Johnson is setting the groundwork for a fresh leadership bid. Short-term, Boris is firing a warning shot at Theresa May ahead of her speech in Florence, where she promised to give an update on Brexit negotiations. Long-term, this is setting the groundwork for Boris to finally become Prime Minister and fulfil his lifelong dream of running the country.

And why this phrase in particular though? Despite being thoroughly debunked, it was a compelling argument that led many people to vote for Leave. Much like Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to get rid of tuition fees, it’s hard to argue against without looking cold-hearted and presents a utopian vision of a different world. Boris is still banking on the idea that Brexit will be a success and that he will be the visionary that can lead Britain to a better future. In his mind, he is backed up by many in his own party and 17 million people who need him as a leader for Brexit to truly succeed. Meanwhile, a weakened Theresa May can’t fire him simply because he will be more dangerous as a backbencher than a cabinet minister. Whatever the outcry of Boris breaking ranks, he’s safe as Foreign Secretary for now.

For the more cynical, Johnson is worried about the state of negotiations and is probably starting to realise that no matter what happens, Brexit isn’t going to be a roaring success. He’s worried that Theresa May is going to make concessions, supported by several key players. Judging by David Davis’ words and actions, he’s right to be worried. If he wants to be leader, Johnson needs to shore up his legitimacy and he’s doing the same thing Theresa May did when she became Prime Minister: using the referendum as a symbol of legitimacy.

It’s hard to say how well his leadership bid will work. His £350m to the NHS claim was already shot through by Nigel Farage, another arch-Brexiteer on the morning of the result. In fact, it is very telling that even since the referendum, many like Farage and David Davis have distanced themselves from the Foreign Secretary. To this day, the government has never moved to promise that the NHS would get that money. Whether it’s due to the new ‘investment’ into Northern Ireland remains to be seen.

Boris has as many obstacles to power as he has enemies. Despite his popularity amongst ordinary Leave voters, many have found alternative candidates in David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg who have stolen his spotlight. Many MPs consider him to be divisive in and out of the party and his ascensions may turn the EU fully against Britain. With Theresa May, the EU is at least pretending to be sympathetic, but with Johnson, they won’t be so willing to play nice against one of their biggest, and most delusional, critics.

Even if he becomes leader, his buffoonery, background and Brexit stance will play against him in the election. The things that made him popular with common folk will be ruthlessly exploited and his arguments that Labour’s Brexit position is inadequate can be neatly countered by the current state of Brexit negotiations, his own ‘whoopers’ and the disarray of his party. Corbyn’s calm, serious demeanour against Johnson’s nervous excitement and often baffling turn of phrase will provide a clearer choice than last time.

On top of that, 17 million people may have voted for Brexit but Theresa May’s focus on Brexit failed to win her a bigger majority in the election and led to a slashed majority and humiliating concessions during negotiations. The shocking turn of events last June has left the Conservatives in mortal dread of losing another election which they’d have to call with a new leader at the helm.

Brexit is the wind in Johnson’s sails, but as his former boss will tell you, a risky gamble doesn’t always pay off.

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Last Update: April 22, 2018