1. LION KING
It’s Brexit Day at Tory conference (or rather, Brexit Afternoon) as Liam Fox, David Davis and finally Boris Johnson get up to speak from the platform. It’s curious that Johnson gets the final say, even though he’s less senior than Davis in the Brexit process and arguably in the Government. Yet the line-up is probably a recognition that his oratorical skills would overshadow anyone that followed him. He was again out running in the early hours, photographers covering his every step.
“Let The Lion Roar” is the title of Johnson’s speech, we are told, a reference to his call for Britain to stand tall in the world again once we quit the EU. The danger is that he looks like Scar in the Lion King, ready to seize the throne through any means necessary.
Last night, Boris was doorstepped by Newsnight’s Nick Watt and gave a quote stressing he was (again) back on board with the PM, saying he and the Cabinet were “totally united behind every comma, every full stop, every syllable of the prime minister’s excellent Florence speech”. As for his new ‘red lines’ outline in the Sun, he was baffled where they had come from: “Search me Guv!”
The PM did an exhaustive breakfast media round (she has sit-down TV interviews later too) with seven different outlets this morning. Asked about Boris’s alleged tougher stance, she told BBC Breakfast “I don’t set those sort of red lines”. And she came up with her latest way to justify not sacking Boris, saying she wanted “a team of people who aren’t yes men, with different views around the table”. That was repeated on ITV: “Of course a prime minister makes decisions about who is in their Cabinet. Weak leadership is having a Cabinet full of yes men.” And on Radio 4: “Strong leadership is having a team around you with different voices. I choose my Cabinet..Of course the Prime Minister is in charge”.
Senior No10 figures, who accept the Daily Telegraph article was a serious issue, downplay the Sun piece. They say the ‘row’ over Boris is ‘froth’ because his ‘red lines’ exist only in the minds of the media. Yet the backlash among ministers is strong. The Guardian quotes Jeremy Hunt saying: “All I would say to anyone who might be eyeing a different job is that Jeremy Corbyn is also eyeing a different job.”. The Mail has Amber Rudd saying ‘red lines’ “are not for him to set. They are for the prime minister to set…Every time he stops making interventions we all breathe a sigh of relief.” The Times and Mail have sources saying May ‘does not want to create a martyr’ by firing Boris. “There are far better ways to cause someone misery,” one source tells Matt Chorley. That hints at a change of job, but any job after Foreign Secretary may look like a demotion.
In our CommonsPeople Live podcast, Boris ally James Cleverly pointed out that people underestimate Boris at their peril. Andrea Leadsom told a fringe last night all ‘four freedoms’ would end in 2019. She seems to be one of the few Cabinet ministers who is totally on board with Bojo right now. He is guaranteed a huge ovation from the faithful today. But let’s see whether May or his fellow ministers are so welcoming the next time he departs from their script.
2. DD DATE
David Davis has been very active indeed at this conference, schmoozing from reception to reception, looking happy and relaxed in his own skin despite the huge task in front of him. Maybe too happy and relaxed, given his line to ‘friends’ that he is preparing to quit Government after Exit Day on March 31, 2019 and leave the transition to someone else, adding “Boris can do that”.
The Sun and Telegraph jointly published the story on the dot of 10pm last night, yet another scoop from the old Cole/McCann combo. DD has always said being Brexit Secretary will be his ‘last big job’ in politics, but when Cabinet agreed on a transition period this summer that presented the possibility that he’d have to stay on for two more years to oversee it. Will he really quit, or does he want May to beg him to stay? Or is something else afoot? Some of his allies think he would be the perfect man to step up as PM during the transition, with a better chance of uniting the party than Boris.
DD’s pals joked last night that they were getting him a box of Milk Tray chocolates to prepare for his early leaving party. The Boris line was an aside, a mere joke, they stress. Keir Starmer wasn’t slow in tweeting: “Negotiations barely begun & he’s already planning his own exit strategy!” It may be that as with Boris, DD’s only aim is indeed delivering Brexit, rather than securing the leadership. But few MPs believe either of them.
On the Today programme, May herself had a curious line about the transition period, stating “it could be less than two years in some areas”. That sounded like she was reviving the Lancaster House line that she wanted different ‘implementation’ phases for different sectors, a plan she herself dumped in her Florence speech after business worries it would all be too messy. Immigration minister Brandon Lewis signalled at a fringe yesterday that post-Brexit migration policy won’t be ready until just months before Exit Day. Which suggests free movement will indeed continue until the transition period comes up with a concrete solution.
A final point: after all the Tory attacks on Labour last week for not having either a debate or a vote on the shape of Brexit, wouldn’t it be odd, even hypocritical, if today’s Brexit session at conference failed to include any party activists arguing their various cases? As for having a conference ‘vote’ on policy, now that really would be a radical idea.
3. FIXING THE YOUTH
The unprecedented turnout among young voters in the last election, most of them backing Jeremy Corbyn, is one of the issues preoccupying many Tories here in Manchester. The PM’s announcements on tuition fees (caps, raised repayment thresholds, even a wider review) are targeted at not just the under-21s, but their parents and grandparents and other relatives. One No.10 source confides his brother had offered to help cover his children’s university costs, a clue to the genuine ‘real world’ concern among millions about this issue. The Tories offered virtually nothing in their manifesto to address student finance, and it’s obvious that as Corbyn has shifted the dial, he may continue to own the topic.
There is also sometimes real confusion among Conservatives about how to deal with their ‘youth problem’. Today our Owen Bennett reveals the Conservatives are set to sever links with every Tory university group in the country in a bid to detoxify their brand. A confidential internal Tory report seen by HuffPost UK calls for “risky student politics” to be moved completely out the party structures. One Cambridge University Conservative Association member burned a £20 note in front of a homeless person and Tories at St Andrews set fire to an effigy of Barack Obama. Ever since Norman Tebbit closed down the Federation of Conservative Students, the party has had a tense relationship with its youth wing. But is this new move the answer?
Justice Minister Philip Lee has long been seen by colleagues as one of the more thoughtful and outspoken of the junior ranks, and he lived up to that at the SMF fringe yesterday. Lee pointed out that demographics, or ‘natural wastage’ of older voters, could leave the Tories electorally handicapped in 10 years’ time. His remarks about the NHS and pensions system being seen as a ‘Ponzi scheme’ risked controversy, but many of his colleagues think he has a point.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen by young and old alike in the party as something of a superstar, drawing packed fringes here. He was admirably calm yesterday when confronted by protestors. In a curious parallel with Boris, the 48-year-old MP has spent years perfecting his ‘young fogey’ persona through Eton, Oxford and now the Commons. Yet several MPs worry that ‘Moggmania’ is a blind alley that risks projecting exactly the wrong image to that crucial non-Tory youth vote.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this bloke in China climbing on telephone wires to escape paying a hotel bill. It wasn’t a stunt: he got stuck and was arrested.
4. PHIL’S HARMONICS
Philip Hammond’s speech yesterday at least tried to make a stab at defending capitalism. But what was most notable was not the lack of any lengthy ovation (it lasted a mere 20 seconds, a contrast to Osborne’s two minute-jobs) but the lack of a big policy reveal. Having pre-briefed his extra money for trains and roads, he had no new policy left in the locker. I’m told this is because, following a discussion a few days ago, he decided to keep one big item back for his Budget instead. Could that be on public sector pay?
In place of policy, Hammond had arguments and attack lines. He started by saying he knew that “droning on about some previously fought war” (ie the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’). I understand that his own kids constantly joke that he does indeed tend to drone alone like that. But Hammond then proceeded to, well, drone on about the 1970s, claiming ‘dinosaurs’ Corbyn and McDonnell would lead us to a Venezuelan or Cuban nightmare.
Hammond’s ad-libbed joke about the ‘ageing population, that’s us!’ dismayed those in his party trying to project a more youthful image. His tone certainly jarred with Justine Greening’s appeal on Sunday for a less ‘negative’ approach to politics (and all the abuse heaped on Corbyn didn’t work in the election campaign). The ‘i’ newspaper quotes a minister saying: “Young people are completely turned off by that kind of party politics. Basically, we just need to get a f***ing grip and start pushing a positive message”. Most striking of all, Hammond’s tone contrasted with May’s own admission in Manchester that Corbyn had “changed the consensus” in the election.
Business reaction was also tellingly lukewarm, with the CBI saying “Brexit uncertainty and dogma-driven politics on both left and right threatens jobs”, and Hammond was strong on diagnosis but “weak on action”. Politico Europe had a mole in the £400-a-head business dinner Hammond addressed last night. “I’ve always hated being called Phil. But if I have to be called Phil, ‘Fiscal Phil’ is a lot better than any of the other F-words they could use.”
5. RACE TO THE BOTTOM
One of the reasons why none of the Brexit ministers were allowed to brief their speeches overnight was because No.10 wanted to give breathing room to her own announcement on the long-awaited ‘racial disparity audit’ of all Government services.
This is central to May’s “burning injustices” speech last year and today’s trail gives a few clues to the findings. Among the findings released today are that black and minority ethnic people are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to own their own home. In education, more than nine in 10 headteachers are white British, but white pupils from state schools had the lowest university entry rate in 2016. Some may shrug and say ‘tell us something we don’t know’, but the full dataset is published next Tuesday, and I’m told there is a huge amount of information.
For today, May revealed she was setting up mentoring and support groups to help people in 20 ‘hotspots’. But as she herself put it on Today, “what matters is not just the data but the solutions”. Let’s see if there’s a bigger idea than mentoring up her sleeve.