It’s Valentine’s Day and Boris Johnson’s bid to woo Remainers looks like it has backfired even before his serenade begins. The Foreign Secretary is set to say he understands the ‘fears’ and ‘noble sentiments’ of those who opposed Brexit. Last night Chuka Umunna, Caroline Lucas, Frances O’Grady and others all rejected his advances, declaring he’s variously a liar and a scaremonger who exploited immigration and misled the public about a Brexit ‘dividend’ for the NHS. Former Cameron pollster Andrew Cooper tweeted last night: “Cutting immigration & boosting the NHS is what Johnson, Gove & co. sold to the British people. Deeply cynical & dishonest for Johnson to try to re-frame Brexit as *liberal* now.”
Yet what was most striking about the pre-briefing overnight is not the message to Remainers, but to Leavers and to his fellow Cabinet colleagues. Although his speech has been vetted by No.10, Boris has been allowed to stray onto the territory of future trade with the EU. And the Telegraph (his favoured paper) reveals he’ll say that having to abide by EU directives would “be intolerable, undemocratic, and would make it all but impossible for us to do serious free trade deals”. It reads like a poem to the PM: “Roses are red, Brexit is Blue/My lines are red, are yours too?”
Boris has an ominous warning too, stating that reversing the 2016 vote “would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”. Still, it’s betrayal by Boris of the metropolitan liberal cause that upsets some in London who remember him winning the Mayoralty by appealing across the political divide. He will try to stress today he wants to open up the UK to more immigration, not pull up the drawbridge, though few of his critics will believe him. Thankfully, there’s a Q&A after the speech today. Brexit is seen by many as ‘a column that went wrong’, yet the journalist in Johnson may not be able to resist freelancing on his main themes. (He was up early jogging on the Mall, giving yet another image of the loneliness of a long-distance Brexiter).
Many think that Johnson backed Brexit to further his own career, but given the reputation-trashing backlash he’s felt since, his friends say it’s difficult to argue that he put expediency over principle. Boundary changes in his own west London seat already put him at risk of a Labour ‘decapitation’ strategy, and he risks losing more Tory Remainers in Uxbridge. As YouGov’s Joe Twyman rightly puts it, Boris has gone from being a ‘Heineken’ politician (refreshing the parts of the capital the Tories couldn’t reach) to being a ‘Marmite’ one (loved and loathed in equal measure). Yet in a Eurosceptic Tory party, an anti-Brussels passion can still get you to the leadership. Perhaps that’s the real Valentine’s message of today.