LONDON — Is Boris Johnson daring the British prime minister to fire him?
It’s a question that some are speculating about as they try to understand the recent antics of Britain’s flamboyant foreign secretary.
Days before British Prime Minister Theresa May set out her vision for Brexit in a landmark speech in Florence, Johnson penned a 4,000-word article in the Daily Telegraph outlining his plan for exiting the European Union.
Over the weekend, Johnson again landed in the headlines. He gave an interview to the Sun in which he appeared to spell out “red lines” over Brexit, some of which seemed to go further than what May has stated publicly.
Analysts say such acts of disloyalty normally constitute firing offenses. In Britain, there’s a political norm of collective cabinet responsibility — the government’s senior leadership team isn’t supposed to air disagreements in public.
“There are bounds to what’s considered to be acceptable behavior, and Boris exceeded those bounds by quite some margin,” said Rob Ford, a politics expert at the University of Manchester.
“To undercut and attack her before she delivers a banner speech, normally that would be firing territory,” Ford said. “It’s almost as if Johnson is daring her to fire him. It’s sort of like, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’ ”
But it’s not clear that May has enough political capital, after the bungled election earlier this year, to remove Johnson (or others) from his post even if she wanted to.
May is in “a quandary,” Ford said. “If she does nothing, it looks like she’s letting disloyalty go unanswered. If she acts, then she gives Boris potentially what he wants.”
When asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr over the weekend whether Johnson was “unsackable,” May swerved, saying instead that the government was “united” in its mission.
In interviews Tuesday morning, May said she doesn’t lead a team of “yes men” and insisted she was in charge.
Johnson is a divisive politician but a darling of the annual Conservative Party conference, where on Tuesday afternoon he delivered a lively speech that was light on policies but heavy on optimism.
He told the party faithful that it was time for Britain to be “bold” and stop treating the Brexit result as if it were a “plague of boils.”
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 3, 2017
Johnson dismissed claims of cabinet infighting, saying the entire team was united behind “every syllable” of May’s recent Brexit speech. He also praised May for her “steadfastness.”
But questions about his loyalty remain, and his focus on largely domestic issues — though he is the foreign secretary — did nothing to squash rumors that he covets the crown.
His speech was reportedly vetted beforehand.
“His speech has been looked at, don’t worry,” May told Sky News on Tuesday morning.
If Johnson were to be removed from his post, it would come as welcome news to some in the European Union who say that London is sending mixed messages on Brexit negotiations.
Manfred Weber, a senior German member of the European Parliament and a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has called for Johnson to be dismissed.
According to a report in the Guardian, Weber asked during a debate Tuesday: “Who speaks for the British government — Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or even [Brexit secretary] David Davis?
“By reading Johnson’s attacks against his own prime minister he shows the British government is trapped by their own party quarrels and political contradictions. … Please sack Johnson because we will have clear answers as to who is responsible for the British position.”
It could be exactly what Johnson wants.
Johnson, an overtly ambitious politician, was one of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign. And ever since the general election this year, in which the Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, there has been speculation about how long May will remain in the top job.
As Johnson continues to wax poetic about a “glorious Brexit,” he is making clear that he is on the side of the hard-line Brexiteers within his party and that he could be their banner waver in any future leadership contest. If he were to be fired, he could portray himself as a martyr for the cause.
There doesn’t appear to be widespread appetite within the Conservative ranks for any big changes at the top — another general election could see the party lose to Jeremy Corbyn’s resurgent Labour Party, and there isn’t a clear alternative to May within the Conservative Party. Indeed, there are those in the Conservative Party who say they would vote for “ABB” — Anybody But Boris. But few think May will lead her party into the next election, whenever it comes.
For his part, Johnson has repeatedly insisted that May’s senior leadership team is not divided.
“We are a nest of singing birds,” he said when confronted by reporters recently in New York.
It may just be that Johnson wants to be talked about, to remain in the headlines and in the frame, should there be a vacancy for the top job.
As Oscar Wilde once wrote: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”