British reporters in Washington yesterday tried, with little success, to ask Boris Johnson about the latest fall-out from his Iran blunder. When he appeared on FoxNews he was instead quizzed on his view of Donald Trump. Boris didn’t hold back in his praise, saying Trump was “a huge great global brand” and “a lot of people relate to” his Tweets. No wonder the FoxNews host said the Foreign Secretary was “a great guest…you are made for television”.
The problem is that Johnson’s gaffe over British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe looks ‘made for’ Iranian State TV. And he’s not out of the woods yet on this one. One ally of the PM tells me that his Iran blunder means “the fuse has been lit” on Boris’s departure and that fuse is still burning down. If the Iranians do indeed increase her jail term, the PM would be loath to offer Tehran another propaganda victory by sacking Boris. But several Tories as well as civil servants think that putting at risk a British national overseas – thanks to a lazy, reckless disregard for precise language – is a bigger sin than anything else he’s done to date. And politically, it’s much easier for the PM to fire Boris over a matter of life and death than any disloyalty over Brexit.
If Nazanin’s jail term were to increase, the clamour from her family for the PM to sack Boris would become intense. Her husband Richard has recorded a powerful vlog for HuffPost in which he urges Boris to accompany him on a trip to Iran to get his wife and daughter home for Christmas. Former Foreign Office chief Peter Ricketts (crucially, also a former National Security Adviser) yesterday said Johnson was not a ‘serious’ enough figure to be Foreign Secretary.
Talk of a wider reshuffle rumbles on, though I still can’t see the PM wanting to do anything before the Budget or even the December EU council. Some around her undoubtedly want her to be bolder and take more risks either late next month or in the New Year. Boris’s scalp would have to be matched by Hammond’s, but scalping either could trigger more names for that magic 48 needed for a vote of confidence in the Tory leader. The Standard yesterday quoted one former minister saying “at least 40” Tory MPs now felt they were in a “leadership crisis”. Conversely, the Times has a new poll showing May’s personal ratings have risen (by one point) since the Fallon sacking. The party is also polling 40% nationally, which is still behind Labour (on 43%) but that’s not at all bad for a Government in apparent chaos.
There was Whitehall chatter yesterday that we may get the conclusion of the Cabinet Office inquiry into Damian Green next week. But ethics chief Sue Gray is hardly independent of Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood and he may not want anything to disrupt the Budget or the EU summit, so it’s possible Green’s fate is timed for the bigger reshuffle.