Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: New PM knows if he backtracks now, Tories will pay heavy price

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

As a boy, Boris Johnson's dream was to become "world king", his sister, Rachel, recalls.

He hasn't quite fulfilled that lofty ambition, but to go from the backbenches to Number 10 yesterday was another milestone in his amazing odyssey.

And he certainly made the most of it. Coming in just short of 1,700 words, his speech in Downing Street was significantly longer than that of his two immediate predecessors.

Critics dismissed it as typical Boris. Heavy on rhetoric, and short on detail.

Being fair to the new Prime Minister, the same was true of Theresa May's and David Cameron's speeches, just far fewer commentators said it.

Northern Ireland politicians were as divided on the address as they are on the man delivering it.

Arlene Foster hailed it as "an excellent speech". Colum Eastwood dismissed it as "bloated with bluff but short on solutions".

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Mary Lou McDonald has written to Mr Johnson seeking a meeting to discuss Brexit and the restoration of devolution. A border poll is also on Mary Lou's list of items for discussion. Good luck with that one.

Given parliamentary arithmetic, Mrs Foster doesn't have to bother with the formalities of letter writing and is expecting to welcome the new Prime Minister to Northern Ireland soon.

Although there was no specific reference to the DUP, there was much in the speech for them to like. Embracing the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson paid tribute to "the awesome foursome that are incarcerated in that red, white and blue flag".

Together they were "so much more than the sum of their parts", he said - a phrase the DUP leader herself has used in the past. Mr Johnson's denunciation of the "anti-democratic backstop" will warm the cockles of DUP hearts.

Yet the party's leaders aren't fools. They sat and listened as he used even more flowery language about the very same mechanism at their party conference last November. Yet that didn't stop him walking into the Aye lobby to vote for the very agreement containing it four months later.

There was some speculation that the DUP could be offered a seat at the Cabinet or Brexit negotiating tables. Party sources dismissed both suggestions, but expect to be more intimately involved in Brexit talks, as opposed to being briefed by Theresa May's team after the discussions in an attempt to bounce them into backing whatever was agreed.

Mr Johnson's speech will have hugely pleased Brexiteers. He lambasted the "doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters" predicting disaster.

He put it up to Brussels - it was a new deal or no-deal.

The UK was no longer running scared and would be leaving the EU by the Halloween deadline, "no ifs or buts".

Yet some remain unconvinced. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted: "Theresa May promised us 108 times that she would deliver Brexit. Now Boris says he's the man to get the job done. Can we trust him to deliver?"

Mr Johnson's political history is littered with U-turns. Yet he surely knows that if he backtracks on this one, the Tories will pay a crucifying political price.

There were heavy hints that he could be planning to go to the polls if parliamentary paralysis on Brexit remains.

Adapting President Harry Truman's famous phrase, he stressed his personal responsibility for Brexit. "Never mind the backstop - the buck stops here," he said, He insisted that politicians need to remember "the people are our bosses".

And how high the stakes would be if he goes down that route. An election that would keep him top of the heap, or mean his Number 10 residency becomes one of the shortest in British political history.

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