Theresa May has made one thing clear: Brexit mean Brexit. But when will the Prime Minister actually pull the trigger and invoke Article 50? Boris Johnson gave his take last night:
'The Government is working towards an Article 50 letter which as you know will be produced, probably, in the early part of next year. That's still subject for discussion but what is clear I think to our friends and partners in the EU is two broad principles: we are not leaving Europe; Although we are leaving the EU treaties, we do want to have the closest possible trading relationship and it's very much in their interests to achieve that... it's very much in their interests to do a great free trade deal with us, and I think that will happen.'
Not so, said Downing Street, who rebuked Boris by saying Theresa May will be the one setting out the timetable. Some will dismiss this as Boris being Boris. Yet the Foreign Secretary isn’t alone in being slapped down by Theresa May, who has now ticked off all three of her Brexit ministers. David Davis fell foul of Downing Street earlier this month when he pointed out it was ‘very improbable’ Britain would remain in the single market - to which No.10 said that was merely him ‘setting out his view’ rather than Government policy. It's not that No10 disagrees, it's just that Theresa May is nervous about her negotiating position. She wants to go into talks demanding everything: full membership of the single market, control over immigration, tariff free Prosecco etc. Then when it is agreed that Britain will be leaving the customs union she can bill it as a great concession. The games, the games.
Liam Fox has also been publicly corrected by No.10 for ‘playing games’ after Theresa May was said to be distinctly ‘unimpressed’ by squabbling between the Brexit trio, back in August. Squabbling that might not have taken place if Mrs May, who created these three jobs, had given her colleagues clearer guidance about their remit.
So what's going on? It’s no surprise Boris and his fellow Brexit band are pushing boundaries and championing Brexit - when the trio were appointed to their roles it was clear they would do just that. Yet their interventions are also a product of Theresa May’s own peculiar policy. By keeping shtum about Brexit and pledging that there will be ‘no running commentary’ on Article 50, the Prime Minister may have saved herself the trouble of worrying about having to go back on her words. But she has also created a Brexit vacuum. And it’s no surprise that the likes of Boris are trying to fill the gap.
And we can see, in Boris's remarks, a tension building up in the government. Some are beginning to worry about Brexit ever happening. There is a suspicion that Theresa May, who voted against Brexit, will stall things and play for time. Hence Boris's talk about imminent Article 50 invocation and the speedy conclusion of talks. The French voted against the EU constitution in a referendum - a result that was overturned by Sarkozy's election. He made ratification of the Nice Treaty part of his presidential manifesto, and it was argued that the election overturned the referendum.
Might Theresa May be planning a similar trick? The thought certainly seems to have occurred to Boris. So we can expect more tension on this, especially if we don't have a date for Article 50 invocation by Valentine's Day.