Jon Craig: The poison at the heart of the latest Tory leadership audition
Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd have been spearheading the Government’s response to the poisoning of a Russian spy.
All this week, Westminster has been gripped by a tale of mystery, intrigue and - potentially - foul play. MPs have indeed been fascinated and alarmed by the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.
But the big mystery of the week - still the subject of fierce debate - has been who or what gave Boris Johnson a bloody nose.
The deep - and presumably painful - cut on the bridge of his nose first appeared as the foreign secretary took his place on the Government front bench for Theresa May’s Brexit statement in the Commons on Monday.
It was there again on Tuesday, as he answered an urgent question from Tory rising star Tom Tugendhat on the Salisbury poisoning and Britain’s relations with Russia. And it was still there when I went to his news conference with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister at the Foreign Office on Wednesday evening.
It was, he claimed, a tennis injury he suffered while playing last weekend. But inflicted by whom? And how, exactly?
Had he been playing again against his old rival David Cameron, with whom he memorably played in Trafalgar Square in 2011 to promote the London Olympics? Had the former Prime Minister taken revenge on court for the EU referendum result?
Or was it something more sinister than a tennis tumble? Was his assailant the wily Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a black belt in judo, with whom the Foreign Secretary clashed painfully and publicly at a news conference last December? Or one of Lavrov’s agents?
Surely it couldn’t be anything to do with long-suffering wife Marina, mother of Boris’s four children, who was reported to have thrown him out of the family home in 2010 after allegations of his infidelity?
Or was it Amber Rudd, the steely home secretary, who gives every impression of regarding Boris Johnson as a frivolous buffoon?
It’s these two highly ambitious senior cabinet ministers who are spearheading the Government’s response to the poisoning crisis, the police inquiry and the allegations that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was responsible. But they’re also probably the two front runners for the Tory leadership when Theresa quits or is forced out and therefore deadly - one might even say poisonous - rivals.
The Salisbury poisoning suddenly pitched them head to head this week in an early audition in front of Tory MPs for the top job: with Johnson answering Tugendhat’s Urgent Question on Tuesday and then Rudd’s Commons statement on Tuesday.
Rudd, of course, has form for attempting to crush Boris. Who can forget her jibe during a TV debate in the referendum campaign? “Boris is the life and soul of the party,” she declared. “But he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”
This week, after a Commons performance in which he denounced Russia as “malign” and threatened a boycott of this summer’s World Cup, Rudd said after chairing a Cobra meeting that it was time for “cool heads”. Who could she possibly have been referring to? No prizes for guessing.
Boris’s words were denounced - predictably, it must be said - as “wild” by the Russian Foreign Ministry and his World Cup boycott threat meant I found myself quoting Gary Neville on Sky News! “He’s a useless fool!” tweeted the former Manchester United captain and England international, now a Sky Sports commentator and pundit. “Why bring football into it?”(Mind you, I’m not sure Gary - who’s a bit of an entrepreneur and property tycoon these days - is a fan of the Tories. It was reported last weekend that he launched a tirade against Theresa May in a speech and called for her to be sacked.)
In contrast to Boris’s UQ, Rudd’s statement was praised for being “calm and cool” by two former Cabinet ministers on the Opposition benches, Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and the LibDems’ Sir Ed Davey.
The poisoning story has already been called a bizarre mix of Midsomer Murders and James Bond. And I suppose after his 2012 zip wire fiasco many will see Boris Johnson as Johnny English, the bungling spy played by Rowan Atkinson in the film.
It has certainly not been a good few weeks for Johnson. After he compared the Irish border to those between London boroughs, Sir John Major said with disdain: “I won’t comment on it. I would still like to be seen as a serious politician.” Ouch! Another bloody nose!
Then the foreign secretary missed Theresa May’s Mansion House speech last Friday because he was grounded by bad weather in Budapest. “Alas I have not been able to listen in person as I hoped,” he tweeted. “As I have been delayed by our common European weather - on which we will remain in full alignment.”
He was also late for the Tugendhat urgent question in the Commons and his leadership audition. “I very much hope that he is beetling his way here,” said Speaker Bercow, another tennis fanatic.
But before supporters of either Boris Johnson or Amber Rudd get too carried away with leadership ambitions, they ought to reflect on how Theresa May has made something of a political comeback since the Mansion House speech that Boris said he was disappointed to miss.
Her best moment in an upbeat PMQs this week was when she goaded Jeremy Corbyn for “mansplaining”.
After this week, Boris Johnson would be well advised not to “mansplain” to Amber Rudd. Or indeed to expect an apparently rejuvenated Theresa May to quit just yet. But as a tennis fan, he’ll know that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have come back from serious injuries.
And so, Amber Rudd take note, it will take more than a bloody nose to curb the foreign secretary’s blond ambition.