DAN HODGES: Boris is no Machiavellian genius

In 1503, Niccolo Machiavelli gazed into the Arno and contemplated the most fiendish and brilliant scheme of his infamous life. He would divert the course of the river, cutting off the water to neighbouring Pisa, with whom he was at war. If successful, it would have the same impact as an H-bomb. Sadly for Machiavelli, a storm swept in and destroyed his grand project. The war continued, the Medici returned, and the great conspirator was banished.

As Boris Johnson sat watching Theresa May delivering her Brexit speech in the annex of the basilica of Santa Maria Novella – a stone’s-throw from that historic tributary – he should have realised his own cunning plans and political fortunes were ebbing away. Had he possessed a scintilla of self-awareness, he would have looked up at the cherubs lining the aula magna and said: ‘Forgive me, for I have sinned.’

But introspection is not his style. And so rather than opt for contrition, he has chosen aggression. No sooner had he returned to London than allies were dispatched to plunge the knife into his colleagues. This time his target was the Chancellor. Philip Hammond had been pushing for a five-year transition period, they whispered. Britain was heading for a Norway model – ‘out in name only’ – until their hero had intervened. It was Boris who saved the day.

Boris Johsnon, pictured, attempted to make a show of unity with Chancellor Philip Hammond after Prime Minister Theresa May had addressed an audience in Florence explaining Brexit 

Of course, Boris being Boris, the blade was plunged in with a smile. Twenty-four hours earlier, I watched as he had attempted to feign pleasantries with the Chancellor. As May finished her speech, he leant across and whispered a cosy aside. Hammond either failed – or pretended not to – hear. But Boris persisted. The show of unity had to be maintained.

And now it has been shattered. Over the next few days, the accusations and counter-accusations will be hurled. But let us be clear: this is Boris Johnson’s war. And it is a war not for Brexit, or for the future of the Government, but to salvage his faltering career.

May has taken a political battering. From the British people. From her colleagues. From her own realisation that the job of Prime Minister is beyond her. But no amount of revisionism from Boris Boosters can recast this simple fact: in the run-up to one of the most important speeches of her premiership, he tried to rally the hard-Brexiteers in rebellion against her. And she faced him down.

We were told Boris would not accept a penny more than £10 billion as the price of Brexit. We were told he would boycott her speech. We were told if May didn’t concede to his demands, Boris would resign. The Prime Minister stood firm. And Boris capitulated.

May will never be Maidenhead’s answer to Martin Luther King, but there was more confidence in the delivery and substance of Friday’s address. ‘It’s up to leaders to set the tone,’ she said. No room for back-seat drivers. In contrast, Boris arrived in the great hall looking sheepish, and exited rapidly.

Niccolo Machiavelli, who is buried in Santa Croce Square, pictured, plotted the downfall of Pisa by cutting off their water supply and forcing them to surrender to him

Niccolo Machiavelli, who is buried in Santa Croce Square, pictured, plotted the downfall of Pisa by cutting off their water supply and forcing them to surrender to him

For all that May has been buffeted, on Brexit she has remained broadly consistent. There is a spine running through her stance from Lancaster House to Firenze. Britain will leave the single market, but seek to retain access to it. We will end freedom of movement, but in a way that minimises the impact on business and current EU residents. We will negotiate firmly but fairly, rejecting blackmail but honouring our obligations. A clear rebuttal to those clamouring for a kamikaze Brexit.


As Labour gathers for its victory – or plucky runner-up – rally in Brighton, the expectation is of a smooth week for Jeremy Corbyn. But according to Labour insiders, not everyone will be infused with a spirit of brotherly, or sisterly, love.

‘Watch out for Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry,’ one MP advised me. ‘She’s on manoeuvres, and he knows it.’

It’s an open secret in Westminster that Thornberry covets the role of deputy, and Watson’s position is vulnerable because of perceived disloyalty to the glorious leader.

‘Emily will use her conference speech to make a move,’ one source says. ‘She’s going to try to frame herself as the new Harriet Harman.’ Allies of Watson say he knows calls for more women at the top of the party are gaining traction. ‘Tom’s suddenly taking a keen interest in gender issues,’ a colleague observes. ‘Don’t be surprised if he walks on stage for his own speech wearing a dress.’

Spine is not a word you can associate with Boris. Last year – as he struggled with his conscience over whether to back Brexit – he wrote two articles setting out the pros and cons of the case. ‘This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms. The membership fee seems rather small for all that access,’ he mused. This ‘rather small’ cost of membership has joined Turkey’s entry to the EU and progressive immigration as ideas casually tossed on the bonfire of his ambition.

It would be overstating things to say there is something tragic about his attempt to again anoint himself as the Eurosceptics’ champion. But not so long ago, Boris was the poster-boy for modern, progressive Conservatism. Now, in his lust for power and attention, he has recast himself as Jacob Rees-Mogg minus the principles.

But while Boris may have Florence carved on his heart, other reputations have been enhanced. Despite Boris’s perfidy, Hammond is succeeding in his efforts to nudge Britain away from the Brexit cliff-edge. David Davis has become the fulcrum of the Cabinet, balancing the soft and hard Brexit factions. And May has managed to reassert a semblance of authority. Her hands remain on the wheel. And the destination remains a pragmatic, phased withdrawal from the EU.

After the PM’s speech, I wandered down to the basilica of Santa Croce, where Machiavelli is buried.

Last week I wrote that Boris’s bungled assassination attempts probably had the old intriguer spinning in his grave.

As I looked up at his tomb, I didn’t hear any spinning. But I did hear the faint sound of mocking laughter.

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