1. BORIS CAR LOVE
Harry Truman’s legendary former Secretary of State Dean Acherson famously once declared that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. Until the last few days, Boris Johnson appeared to have lost the Foreign Office’s empire in the Brexit talks and hadn’t yet found a role to match his EU referendum influence. Thanks to Theresa May’s refusal to sack him for ‘back seat’ driving (copyright Amber Rudd), that may have all changed.
Boris last night agreed with the PM’s verdict that “there’s one driver in the car- it’s Theresa” (note he doesn’t say ‘the Prime Minister’, a tactic similar to his use of ‘Dave’ for Cameron). But while he’s not in the vehicle, is car-loving Bojo at least resetting the SatNav? There are suggestions that May has backed off using her Florence speech to make a new bold offer to Brussels on the Brexit divorce bill, something the Foreign Secretary felt he’d not been consulted on. For Remainers, this will all fuel the perception that our quitting the EU is one long, slo-mo car crash.
The Cabinet are now due to meet on Thursday for a final consultation so on that at least Boris can claim to have had some influence. Last night, despite her solo driving insistence, May’s line ‘Boris is Boris’ (she didn’t add ‘And we’ll make a success of Boris’) underlined her weakness. More importantly, she suggested her Florence speech would be based on her Lancaster House speech, seen as a hint of no backing off the Brexiteer firmness.
If the Florence speech is a mere update, Boris will have won this round. But if May goes ahead with a bold offer to Brussels, Boris is the one who will either have to accept it - or stage a Cabinet walkout not seen since the Heseltine flounce over Westland. He refused to rule out resigning yesterday, simply saying ‘you’re slightly barking up the wrong tree’. His father Stanley told SkyNews his son would be ‘happy, happy, happy’ to quit rather than endorse a status quo Brexit (he also let slip they have a Whatsapp group and have discussed his PM ambitions). Boris even had a loyal footsoldier on Newsnight (Dan Poulter), always a sign of someone on manoeuvres.
Ken Clarke told Today that: “In normal circumstances he would be sacked the day after [that Telegraph piece]”. Clarke said Boris should have made his point privately rather than launching an exocet in a “eurosceptic newspaper that is read by most people in a leadership election”. William Hague has written in the same paper that May has to unite her Cabinet or face a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a bit hare-em, scare-em given no Tory MP will tolerate an election until 2022). There’s one bonus for the Telegraph: I’m told Tory MPs frustrated with not being able to read Boris’s opus have now signed up to its premium subscription model.
What’s strange is that Boris allies have upped the ante in the Sun, with a briefing that he told a friend recently that May will end up being humiliated by Brussels. “Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation”, he said, warning Barnier would grind down the PM and force her to accept bad terms. A close confidante of Boris’s added: “He always makes a point of saying ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ because he thinks it will be what we have to do.” May and Johnson have no formal meeting planned but will both attend a Commonwealth meeting this evening. Awks indeed.
2. FOR-CETA SALOON
Any debate over the EU tends to be mired in acronyms and jargon and we can’t get away from them in the row at the heart of the Boris eruption: does the UK want an EEA/Norway-lite model for future trade with Europe, or does it want a CETA-plus (the Canada-EU trade deal) model? On the first we keep EU trade while losing a say over its rules. On the second, we take a hit on trade but get more freedom to sort other deals with other countries.
Of course there are more than these two options and many Tory MPs want a solution that is as bespoke as a Savile Row suit, rather than an off-the-peg Eurotrash jacket with patched-up sleeves. Henry Newman, ex-spad to Francis Maude and Michael Gove and now head of Open Europe, wrote on ConHome that the Treasury is facing Brexiteer Cabinet resistance to its EEA-minus plans.
While Boris and Gove are at the Canada end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum), Hammond and Rudd are said to be at the Norway end. But what off David Davis? Has he found Boris’s intervention helpful? Well, I’m told he is ‘more CETA than Norway-lite…Norway-lite is like being a branch office of the EU’. That, ultimately, could be why May is being forced to rejig her Florence speech: having just one big Brexiteer up against you is tricky, but six or more (DD, Gove, Boris, Fox, Grayling, Patel) is dangerous.
Meanwhile, I understand Labour is looking at what it calls ‘Norway-plus’ (a more positive spin that looks like EEA-friends-with-benefits). This is precisely the phrase used by Germany’s top economist Clemens Fuest, who told HuffPost European editors in Berlin that he wanted such a transitional deal ‘forever’. Fuest is no Eurofederalist and points out Brexit will ‘not be a catastrophe’, as a reduced GDP will be balanced by the devalued pound. He, like many Germans, doesn’t want the UK punished. Fuest also had a nice line about the Brexit vote: “I believed in the British focus on money. I thought that economic arguments would dominate. But if you value independence and the issue of controlling immigration very highly, you leave despite the cost.”
3. HONOURABLE MEMBERS
It’s Labour’s NEC meeting today and the main focus will be on plans to cut the MPs’ threshold for leadership nominations from 15% to 10%. As revealed by HuffPost earlier this month, this is the ‘compromise option’ tabled by the TSSA union and supported by the leadership (some want it cut to 5% but that’s not got enough union support).
But there’s a subplot and that’s a separate move to make the 35-strong NEC even bigger to better reflect party members. This is an idea that some felt would be raised then pushed to next year but there is pressure to seize the moment and act now. The Guardian reports that agreement could be reached today on 5 extra members, and that would certainly embed the leftward shift in the party.
Yesterday’s Indy had an interview with Momentum chief Jon Lansman where he said: “Out of 35 members, half a million members have just six representatives [on the NEC]. It’s absurd. I would like to see constituencies having more or less the same number of representatives as the unions and that’s my objective.” And therein lies the rub: will unions (who bankroll the party) really agree to a dilution of their own role?
Either way, you won’t see Tom Watson rocking the boat as he’s made clear it’s now up to Jeremy Corbyn to choose how he wants to run the party. It’s all a contrast to this time last year, when centrists were delighted at getting two extra NEC seats (for Kez Dugdale and a Welsh rep) to tilt the balance of power their way.
4. THE CABLE GUY
It’s Vince Cable’s Big Speech at the Lib Dem conference and he’s garnered a few headlines out of the overnight trail, with his plea for ‘sensible grown ups’ to unite to oppose Brexit. For years before they were in Coalition, journalists did their democratic duty in suspending disbelief whenever reporting on Lib Dem conference (and when they were in government they certainly mattered). Since the 2015 and 2017 election results it’s become even harder to write as if the party’s policies will ever see the light of day.
Still, Cable knows that in a hung Parliament his 12 MPs may have some clout if they can ally with Tory remainers, the SNP and Labour on Brexit. The party could possibly have more influence if Labour falls short of a majority of its own at the next election.
But for now, it’s taken backbencher Layla Moran to add a health dose of realism to Cable’s weekend talk that he could be Prime Minister. She told a fringe last night while such PM speculation was “good fun” the focus should be on “distinctive positions”. “It’s not just the leadership, there is a portion of the wider party that still kind of believes this too, that somehow we are going to go back into government at any moment- And I think we need to kind of accept we’re not.”
Meanwhile, it’s taken Nick Clegg to remind his party that in fact it should be proud of its Coalition record, even on Government cuts. Clegg told activists last night that Ed Miliband was to blame for the rise of Corbyn “because if you spend five years demonising austerity as some sort of evil choice, then of course you can never digest ideas that sometimes you need row back as a country in a way of living within the means of what you can afford.” Defending austerity, well it’s certainly a ‘distinctive’ position.
5. BINDERS FULL OF HIM IN
Over in New York, it’s Donald Trump’s first address to the UN General Assembly (having yesterday given Boris a handshake AND a pat on the back). Never traditionally comfortable with speeches where every word matters, the President looks like he’s prepping to target North Korea and Iran, two thirds of George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ (Iraq was the other). Some British diplomats worry that any ending of the carefully organised Iranian nuclear deal is highly dangerous indeed, and would prefer him to focus on Pyongyang instead.
Brits may see a glimmer of hope on Iran as they see it on the Paris climate change accord, where the White House indicated at the weekend that Trump may not necessarily pull out. He also suggested something similar to French President Emmanuel Macron in a bilateral meeting yesterday.
But much, much more interesting to the Russians (and the rest of us) will be the New York Times story that special investigator Robert Mueller’s federal agents have raided the home of Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort. They picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home, taking “binders stuffed with documents” and computer files, looking for evidence he set up secret offshore bank accounts with possible Russian money. They even photographed the expensive suits in his wardrobe. It’s looking serious folks.