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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Boris Johnson: the political soap opera that keeps on giving

The foreign secretary dominated political conversations this weekend, but has he reached the end of the road?

Boris Johnson dominated political discussion in Britain at the weekend. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo
Boris Johnson dominated political discussion in Britain at the weekend. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

The soap opera that is the political career of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson continues to play to rapt audiences, as he spent Sunday centre stage at the heart of British political debate. With ‘Boris’ stories plastered across the front pages of the newspapers, a cabinet colleague dismissing him as a “backseat driver” on Brexit, and a senior civil servant essentially accusing the foreign secretary of lying, you couldn’t escape the blond-mopped Conservative politician this weekend.

Following the publication in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday of his 4,000-word vision of how Brexit would work for the country, Mr Johnson has become a lightning conductor for both anti and pro-Europeans in the United Kingdom. The Sunday version of the Telegraph carried a splash saying that fellow Eurosceptic cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Priti Patel had rallied to their colleague’s side.

But The Observer newspaper carried a story saying that Tory MPs were demanding the firing of the foreign secretary. And when the home secretary Amber Rudd was asked about the timing of the Brexit declaration on a political TV show on Sunday morning, she echoed the popular leader of the Scottish Tories, Ruth Davidson, by saying that the day after a terror attack in London was a surprising choice to launch what is widely seen as a leadership bid.

“I think she has a point – I had a very busy weekend dealing with what could have been a terrible attack on our public transport,” Ms Rudd told Andrew Marr. The home secretary, a supporter of the remain campaign, was pressed about a comment she had made about Boris Johnson during the referendum campaign when she said he was the “life and soul of the party but he is not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”.

Rudd said: “What I meant by that is I don’t want him managing the Brexit process. What we’ve got is Theresa May managing that process. She is driving the car – to continue the allegory – and I’m going to make sure as far as I am concerned and the rest of the cabinet are concerned that I’m going to help her do that.”

She went on to be asked what her cabinet colleague had indulged in: “Yes, you could call it backseat driving.”

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Tory MPs call for Boris Johnson’s head after breach of party unity

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Later during Sunday, Mr Johnson was told that he was guilty of a “clear misuse of official statistics” by Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority. In a letter sent in response to the foreign secretary’s restating of the controversial statement that there was £350m a week that could be spent on the NHS, Mr Norgrove said he was “surprised and disappointed” to see the claim repeated.

Norgrove said that “This confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including, for example, for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.

Mr Johnson hit back, saying that Sir David had made a “wilful distortion of the text of my article”, but the general feeling among many in Westminster and beyond was that the foreign secretary may have used up the last of his nine lives.