(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May heads into the Conservative Party conference fielding questions over why she hasn’t fired Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who’s set out an independent course on Brexit and further undermined her authority.
A perennial leadership contender, Johnson has challenged May’s strategy on leaving the European Union twice recently at critical moments: as she was about to make Brexit concessions during a speech in Florence, and again on the eve of the Tory conference. On Sunday, a weakened May could only laugh and dodge the question of whether the errant minister was “unsackable.”
Investors have been paying attention to political volatility in the U.K since the 2016 referendum that set the country on its path out of the EU. May inherited Brexit, yet has struggled to find her voice, trapped between hardliners back home and negotiators in Brussels. The task was made more difficult by her decision to call a snap election for June in which she ceded ground to an opposition that now calls itself the government-in-waiting.
Her job this week in the northern city of Manchester is to show she’s in control.
The annual conference “will be watched to see if May has the ability to pull the party behind her,” said Jane Foley, head of currency strategy at Rabobank. “Right now, the signs do not look good.” Any challenge to May’s leadership at the conference could send sterling lower, Foley said.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, with one eye on the markets, sought to play down the splits on Monday morning. Business Secretary Greg Clark joined him in saying they’d support May if she stood in a second election.
“The real process is going on between us and the negotiating team in Brussels,” Hammond, who is pushing for a softer Brexit strategy, told ITV. “Everything else is noise.”
The Times of London cited unidentified ministers saying May either needs to get rid of Johnson or step down. Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said “many in the party believe he is goading May into sacking him, so that he can become a ‘Brexit martyr’ on the back benches.”
Johnson, the former mayor of London, has his fans.
At an event on the sidelines of the conference, lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg -- a hardliner popular with the rank-and-file -- said Britain should simply refuse to set up border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit. Tories like him have no problem with Johnson contradicting May and defining his own “red lines” for negotiations.
Rahman went on to say that that even if the prime minister doesn’t fire Johnson, “he might resign anyway, calculating that his prospects of succeeding May will be enhanced if he can champion a clean break from the EU.” Either way, he said, the situation is seen as increasingly untenable.
Johnson’s actions are a reminder of how vulnerable May is after her botched election gamble in June. The election left the Tories without a working majority in Parliament, just as she was heading into complex Brexit talks with a well-prepared and determined adversary in the shape of Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator.
Dead Woman Walking?
Part of the reason May, 61, is still standing is that there’s also little desire for another change of guard. Graham Brady, a senior Conservative lawmaker who speaks for the rank-and-file, was asked about Johnson in a BBC interview. He was unequivocal in saying there was no demand for “a debate about the future leadership of the party.”
Johnson says the suggestion that he’s undermining May is wrong, and that he’s simply standing up for the people who voted for Brexit. But his public statements have the advantage of positioning him as the keeper of the Brexit flame. This could be a strong position from which to run for the top job.
Known for his gaffes and mop of messy blond hair, Johnson, 53, has flunked two earlier opportunities to run for the Tory leadership. Still, he’s so well-known that in the U.K. he’s simply known as Boris, and behind his public buffoonery he has keen political instincts. He was the face of the successful campaign to leave the EU back in 2016.
On his arrival in Manchester for the conference, Johnson was mobbed by television cameras and promptly told a joke about how Britain would be able to sell more underwear -- or in his word, “knickers” -- to Cyprus as a result of Brexit.
Whether voters care about his blunders is another matter. If his interventions over the past month have achieved nothing else, they demonstrate Johnson has the kind of star power that no one else in the cabinet, including May, can match.