Boris Johnson’s leaked speech proves Brexiteers are worried they won the referendum battle, but are losing the war

It seemed a good idea at the time. When Theresa May became prime minister, she put The Three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – into cabinet posts with a role in delivering the referendum result which had brought her to power. May judged that the move would keep them in the tent and reassure Eurosceptics who doubted her credentials because she had backed Remain.

Crucially, The Three Brexiteers would sell her exit deal to Conservative MPs and the public because they would share ownership of it.

To say that things have not quite gone according to plan is the understatement of the century. Davis, the Brexit secretary, has threatened to resign on at least five occasions. His most public tantrum was on Thursday, producing a “will he, won’t he?” pantomime before May outmanoeuvred him over her latest plan to prevent a hard Irish border.

Fox has been loyal in public but has fought hard for the UK to break free from the EU so it can strike new trade deals and so he still has a job as international trade secretary. Johnson has thrown his toys out of the pram on several occasions, threatening to quit, upstaging May’s speeches and in effect warning the Conservative Party that she is diluting Brexit.

Now the foreign secretary has gone nuclear at a private Tory dinner, warning that “unless you have the guts to go for the independent policy, you’re never going to get the economic benefits of Brexit … The risk is that we will end up in a sort of anteroom of the EU, with an orbit around the EU, in a customs union and to a large extent in the single market.” He branded the Treasury “the heart of Remain”, accusing it of sacrificing Brexit’s medium and long term gains out of fear of short term disruption to customs arrangements.

That was disloyal enough. To cap it all, Boris said he was “increasingly admiring” of Donald Trump, suggesting he would make a better job of Brexit than May as he would “go in bloody hard” and force concessions from the EU. As John McEnroe would put it, Boris cannot be serious. If May turned the negotiating table upside down and stormed out in a Trump-like hissy fit, I doubt the EU would beg her to return.

One EU diplomat told me this week that Brexit is number six on its list of priorities. Yes, the EU wants a trade deal. But it also wants to turn the page on Brexit. So it might just shrug its shoulders. The result? A no-deal exit next March that would damage the UK economy, and a frantic last minute scramble for a very limited “no deal deal” to keep planes flying and prevent gridlock at Dover.

Interestingly, Johnson suggested there might be a “meltdown” because May is about to become “much more combative with Brussels”. Perhaps this was wishful thinking. May’s advisers have occasionally toyed with the idea of a walkout, to show the EU she is no pushover and reassure Leave voters at home, but she has abandoned her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra. She wants a deal and is making the inevitable compromises, admitting in a letter to Tory MPs that her latest customs plan is “unpalatable”.

Johnson aides say it is “sad and very disappointing” his words were covertly recorded and leaked to the media. I think he will somehow manage to cope with his disappointment. Why should Davis get all the credit, and the limelight, for standing up to May? Why not remind the 120,000 Tory members who will choose her successor that good old Boris wants to “take the fight to the [EU] enemy”, and is trying to block May’s stealthy push for a soft Brexit?

Johnson’s speech on Wednesday night reflects the Brexiteers’ growing fears that, while they won the referendum battle, they might be losing the war. Yes, the UK will leave the EU next March. But if we remain close to it, and stick to its regulations on goods, that would be a failure, not be the clean break they want.

So what do you think?

Tell us in the comments.

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