In the aftermath of the referendum, the job of Prime Minister seemed to be Boris Johnson’s for the taking. As one of the leaders of the Leave campaign with proven star quality and the intellectual backing of Michael Gove, he looked to be clear on goal. But from six yards out he skied it over the bar. Somehow he lost the backing of Michael Gove and he withdrew.
The eventual victor, Theresa May, made him Foreign Secretary but it rapidly became apparent that he was woefully miscast. His mouth has regularly run ahead of his brain and rumour has it that he is deeply unpopular with his opposite numbers, hardly helpful at a time when Britain badly needs friends and influence in order to secure the best terms for Brexit that it can manage. It seems that for some time Theresa May has kept him out of the inner circle and since the election he has evidently been brooding on his options.
Number 10 was reported earlier in the week to have him on flounce-watch but sadly it seems that their agents were unable to apprehend the suspect before he detonated his device. On Friday evening, he struck with his preferred weapon, the newspaper article. Knowing that the Prime Minister was going to set out her vision for Brexit in Florence this week, he has dictated his own terms first. This is lèse-majesté in its purest form.
In the wake of any atrocity, it is customary for those attacked to confirm that they are not going to be deterred from carrying about their usual business and that they are unruffled. But Theresa May is going to be unable to ignore this without her lack of authority being exposed still more painfully. She is either going to have to sack him or she might as well just give up. She usually takes her time to make any difficult decision but she must surely eject him from the Cabinet.
Boris Johnson is a highly intelligent man. He will have foreseen this. So he must be rolling the dice in preparation for a leadership bid once he has been sacked, to cross the Rubicon with the forces that he can muster from the backbenches.
But he has been just too transparent in his appeal to the most diehard Leavers, who have never particularly trusted him anyway. The likely reaction of those who have more to their life than Brexit is going to be distaste for such obvious and calculated ambition.
He has been unlucky with his timing too. He could not have known when he made his move that London was going to be hit by a botched terrorist attack and have its alert level raised to critical. This makes him look callously self-interested.
This is not, however, good news for Theresa May. If Boris goes ahead with his plan, I expect the numbers will be found to hold a vote of no confidence in her. Whether or not that succeeds, she will be critically undermined, just as Margaret Thatcher and John Major were critically undermined when they were challenged too. She may limp on, as John Major did all the way to the general election, but the knowledge that a large chunk of her party want shot of her will rob her of the vestiges of authority that she currently possesses.
So this may well be the prelude to a new Prime Minister. The chances of that new Prime Minister being Boris Johnson, however, look to be receding. That is good news for David Davis in particular.
But there is one other politician for whom this is unequivocally good news. Michael Gove was reviled for pulling the rug from under Boris Johnson’s feet last year. Right now, his judgement of the man looks to have been completely vindicated. He is hugely respected among the Conservative rank and file, and just as importantly his Leave credentials are impeccable. He holidayed with George Osborne, so may well be able to count on the support of that wing of the party, allowing himself to present himself as a unifying candidate.
He can be backed for next Prime Minister at 40 with SkyBet and at odds of 30 or more on Betfair (don’t forget Betfair’s next Conservative leader market either). He was good value at those prices before the weekend’s events. He definitely is now.