If – as is widely assumed - Johnson’s aspiration is to position himself as a contender to be Prime Minister then I suspect it will misfire badly. The tricks and deceptions that worked for him as de facto leader of the Leave campaign hardly work for a Foreign Secretary trying to become a PM (and may well find him in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct). In fact they only serve to re-enforce the damage he has done to himself whilst Foreign Secretary in demonstrating the lack of the statesmanlike qualities he wants to claim for himself. Re-opening the £350M absurdity was especially ill-judged since it has now passed into history as a notorious political lie, disowned even by ardent leavers. He can do himself no good by re-associating with it.
In fact, Johnson has not just done himself harm but has done the remain cause a favour by reviving this row. Our most potent line is to persuade leave voters that what they are going to get from Brexit is not what they were promised, whilst our weakest point is the argument that the decision has now been made and Britain has to get on with it. By going back to a campaign position, in general, and the £350M claim, in particular, that potent line becomes stronger, and that weak point becomes protected.
But all of this – and all of the media coverage of Johnson’s ambitions and Labour attacks on ‘splits within the government’ – is pretty much irrelevant. Political journalists like it because it is about the business-as-usual Westminster game. However, that is not the game which will determine the future of our country. That future is about the remorseless ticking of the Article 50 clock, bringing us ever closer to Britain being a third country, outside of the EU.
None of the complex, practical matters of that are affected by the internal wrangling in the Tory Party. It is relevant only to the extent that it is a reminder that it is impossible for the government to develop any half-way realistic Brexit policy – assuming that the government would, otherwise, be minded to have such a policy. It underscores that the government is now caught in an unsquareable circle: if it attempts to develop a pragmatic approach to Brexit it will rip apart the Tory Party; if it holds the Tory Party together, the country will be ripped apart by Brexit. That is the grim situation we are in, and it is hard to see a way out of it.