Sunak should face down Johnson's latest predictable Brexit intervention

Sunak must plough on with his plans to strike a compromise with the EU on Northern Ireland—and ignore his predecessor’s dangerous chest-beating

February 21, 2023
Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit plans have reportedly been criticised by Boris Johnson. Photo: NurPhoto SRL / Alamy Stock Photo
Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit plans have reportedly been criticised by Boris Johnson. Photo: NurPhoto SRL / Alamy Stock Photo

It was entirely predictable that Boris Johnson would intervene in the latest chapter of the Brexit saga. Or rather, that his friends would intervene on his behalf because the former prime minister wants to test the water before putting his own tousled head above the parapet. He has always preferred to have his cake and eat it.

The truth is that Johnson still wants to be in Number 10 and so he will do whatever he can to undermine his successor. Like the scorpion who cannot help stinging the frog that carries him across the river in Aesop’s tale, Johnson appears incapable of being loyal to anyone but himself, even if his disloyalty eventually destroys him along with his party. For the greatest attention-seeker in politics, everything is always about Boris. 

By letting it be known that he thinks Rishi Sunak’s plan on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland—striking a compromise agreement with the EU, and potentially shelving controversial legislation to unilaterally rip up the so-called protocol—would be a “great mistake”, the former prime minister is choosing to strike at what he believes is a moment of maximum vulnerability for the Tory leader. Couched by allies as Johnson’s “general thinking” on a question that demands attention to detail, the briefing left a veneer of plausible deniability, while also burnishing his Brexiteer credentials with Tory right-wingers. As one current cabinet minister puts it to me: “Prick-teasing is the technical term.” But this senior member of the government predicts that the Johnson strategy will fail. “Everyone who comes into contact with him learns the hard way that he can’t be trusted and now the Tory party has learned that lesson too. The Borisonians are a weakened band of birds of bright plumage; the epicentre of the parliamentary party isn’t where they are.”

Johnson’s supporters were quick to flock behind him, with David Frost, his Brexit negotiator, calling for “more transparency” from the government about its intentions and former cabinet minister Simon Clarke squawking that the treaty-breaking legislation “remains a clean solution”. They seem to have forgotten that the Northern Ireland protocol was Johnson’s own answer to one of the thorniest dilemmas created by Brexit—now they want a Bill to rip it up. Senior pro-Brexit Conservative MPs are warning of a big Tory rebellion if there is still a role for the European Court of Justice under Sunak’s deal. James Duddridge, a former Brexit minister and a leading ally of Johnson, claimed to Sky News: “It won’t just be the so-called Spartans. There will be a large number of Brexiteers, possibly the majority of the parliamentary party and potentially running into treble figures.”

But the country just wants the whole thing to be finished. In the Tory party, the mainstream balance of opinion has shifted away from the man who was once seen as the “Heineken politician”, able to win over parts of the country that other Conservatives couldn’t reach. Johnson is no longer seen as a winner by most Tories. His reputation has been damaged, perhaps terminally, by the lockdown-busting parties held in Downing Street, and his account of those events is now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry by the cross-party privileges committee. A former cabinet minister and staunch Eurosceptic fumes that he is giving Brexiteers a bad name. “This is all about Boris, not about what is right for the country.” Another senior MP tells me: “He’s a busted flush, whatever his supporters say.” 

George Osborne, the former chancellor, was right to tell Andrew Neil that “if you wait for Boris Johnson to do the sort of grown-up, sensible thing, he’s not going to do it if he thinks there’s a political opportunity in causing trouble… He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it.” 

This may look like a threat to the prime minister, but it is also an opportunity for him. Sunak should face down Johnson and his supporters in the European Research Group. Even if dozens of Tory Eurosceptics rebel against the government, Keir Starmer has said that Labour would ensure a sensible Brexit deal gets through the House of Commons. If Suella Braverman resigns, then so be it. The cabinet would be better without her. It may not reach that point. One minister predicts that the “Borisonians” will melt away “like summer snow” if it comes to a vote. “The parliamentary party has to decide whether this is 1992 or 1997”, whether the government can muster a surprise victory like the early John Major, or really is headed for landslide defeat. “The difference between the two is not the polls but unity,” he says. “If the parliamentary party doesn’t hang together, they will hang separately at the next general election” and face electoral oblivion reminiscent of a quarter of a century ago.

Starmer has shown that he is more interested in the voters than his party’s ideologues, by insisting Jeremy Corbyn will not be a Labour candidate at the next election. Now Sunak has the chance to prove that he will put the country before the Tory right on a question that, whatever the outcome, will define his premiership. It could be the making of him. He has to take on Johnson and win.