What is Boris Johnson playing at?

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Remember the infamous Vote Leave bus, emblazoned with the slogan “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”?

For the past year, it has seemed as if the senior politicians who hopped on and off it for the cameras during the referendum campaign would rather not mention it.

But today, splashed across the front page of the Daily Telegraph, it is reclaimed, with the headline: “Boris: Yes, we will take back £350m from EU for NHS”.

Inside, a 4,000-word blueprint for Britain’s “glorious future” outside the EU, as a thriving low-tax, low-regulation economy in which we “take back control” of our cash.

Outside the single market, outside the customs union, and not paying Brussels to access European markets is the grand vision set out by the Foreign Secretary.

:: EU Secretary: ‘EU divorce bill £60bn and falling’

Mr Johnson has been relatively silent on Brexit, in public at least, over the past few months, amid reports that he is frustrated by the direction of the negotiations in which the influence of Philip Hammond and David Davis – wanting to keep the status quo during a lengthy transition period – have gained the upper hand.

Theresa May

Image:Theresa May is days from giving a major Brexit speech in Florence

The timing is certainly provocative.

Theresa May is days from giving a major address in Florence, setting out her Brexit strategy in detail for the first time since her Lancaster House speech in January. She must then try to cement her authority at the party conference in October.

Her ministers and officials are hoping to negotiate a transition deal lasting between two and four years to avoid a cliff edge; something Mr Johnson makes no mention of at all.

Mr Davis, who is shuttling to Brussels battling over the financial settlement, told business leaders at a private summit yesterday that the bill was currently “£60bn and falling”.

Mr Johnson, on the other hand, is dismissive of the idea that Britain should pay anything during a transition period or beyond.

He hardly provides encouragement for colleagues on the front line by saying that Britain “has spent too much time trying and often failing, to exert influence in the meeting rooms of Brussels”.

:: Theresa May to deliver major Brexit speech in Florence next week

It’s no wonder the Labour leader says the article reveals the deep divisions at the heart of Government.

Mrs May’s former adviser Will Tanner described it as “a prelude to resignation” from “the guy who wants to replace her”.

Is it a leadership bid? If not, he is certainly aware it will be interpreted as one. A grand vision for what Brexit will mean for housing, universities, jobs and taxes.

An ally tells me he is simply frustrated by the negativity around Brexit and the idea the narrative has been captured by those who campaigned against it.

European Commission President Jean-Claude JunckerVideo:EU President says UK will ‘regret’ leaving

In the article, he hits out at sceptics who believe the fiddly process of Brexit is already getting “lost in a House of Commons crevasse…that we will simply despair of finding the way out of the EU and sit down on the floor and cry – like some toddler lost in the maze at Hampton Court”.

Inevitably, he also feels the need to defend his reputation, with attacks on the integrity of the Leave campaign and its controversial promises seen to have dented his prospects as a future leader.

Few in the Conservative Party believe Theresa May will lead them into the next election.

With a vacancy emerging at some point down the track, and keenly aware that he and the Vote Leave gang will be blamed for any failures in the negotiations, Mr Johnson – who for years was regarded as his party’s best communicator – is showing he can’t be written off as a contender when the time comes.

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What is Boris Johnson playing at?

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