BORIS JOHNSON is a serial problem for the Conservative Party’s high command. He is always plotting behind the scenes to get the top job. He has been flagrantly disloyal on the most divisive issue facing the government. Days before Theresa May delivered a speech in Florence laying out the government’s considered position on Brexit, he published an article laying down “red lines” for Britain to keep within during its negotiation. He is also gaffe-prone. The day before Mrs May’s big speech to the party conference he joked, to nervous laughter from his fellow Tories, that Sirte, in northern Libya, could become “the next Dubai” if they could “clear the dead bodies away”.
So why doesn’t the prime minister sack him? One reason, as with almost everything in British politics, lies in Brexit. Sacking a man whose allies call him the “godfather of Brexit” might upset the delicate balance of forces in the cabinet. Another reason is Mr Johnson’s popularity in his party. A YouGov poll found that he is favourite among party members to be the next leader. The Daily Telegraph, a Tory-leaning newspaper, splashed his conference speech on its cover with the headline, “The roaring lion”. Mr Johnson knows how to cheer up the Conservative troops at a time when it is all too easy to give in to despair.
Nevertheless, the party’s patience is wearing thin. Several Tory MPs such as Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen called for Mr Johnson to be sacked after his Libya remarks. Off the record, Tories from all sides of the party, including some Brexiteers, were happy to tell journalists that Mr Johnson’s time was up. He also has the air of last year’s man. Grassroots activists are now rallying behind an eccentric new hero in Jacob Rees-Mogg.
One theory is that Mr Johnson is constantly redrawing his “red lines” in order to force Mrs May to sack him. He is apparently finding it hard to get by on a cabinet minister’s salary of £142,467 ($189,000) a year and wants to get back to earning serious money as a writer. Why deal with the difficult work of negotiating with the European Union when you can recharge your bank account on the backbenches—and at the same time hone your Churchillian rhetoric before leading a rebellion against the betrayal of Brexit?