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At a meeting of the “political” cabinet this evening (held in No.10, but no civil servants allowed), Tory co-chairman Ben Elliot announced that this month had been the party’s most successful September fundraising month. Ever.
That’s a testimony to Boris Johnson’s sheer pulling power for donors who really like his determination to deliver Brexit. Throughout his political career, Johnson has had a talent for attracting cash from businessmen and others. Unlike Theresa May, he shakes their hands, tells jokes and generally makes them feel better about themselves.
But it’s also a reminder that we are now firmly in autumn election mode and everything the PM does is directed to winning that snap poll whenever it comes. The cabinet was given presentations on voter attitudes (Johnson was way ahead of Corbyn on “leadership”) and strategy.
Significantly, the PM himself told colleagues that Labour is “running scared” and that the term “Surrender Bill” is hurting Corbyn badly with voters. In his address to the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, he had earlier said the issue was getting “cut through” with the public.
So it’s no wonder he refused to apologise today for the row sparked by his remarks last night about Jo Cox and what critics called his “inflammatory” language. After his sister Rachel said the far-right would be “whipped up by this sort of language”, Johnson told the BBC he “totally deplores any threats to anybody, particularly female MPs”. Yet for the PM, it’s ultimately all about votes - and he repeated to broadcasters his “surrender” line for TV prime time.
While the PM was up in the 1922 Committee, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings was accosted by Labour’s Karl Turner one floor down in Portcullis House. Turner told me how he had advised Cummings he had received a death threat overnight after the PM’s inflammatory “tone”. Cummings replied: “Get Brexit done.” Unsurprisingly, Turner lost his cool.
That warning to MPs that their safety is in their own hands sums up the crux of the controversy over the past 24 hours. When asked today if there were any regrets about the language row, Cummings told colleagues: “No...The Vote Leave campaign keeps going.” At a book launch tonight, Cummings went public to attack the “bunch of politicians” who don’t respect the referendum result having said they would. “What do you expect to happen?”
But the prime minister is not a puppet dancing to Cummings’ tune. He is driving the strategy from the front, partly it seems because internal polling shows the word “surrender” has real resonance with key voter groups. One former cabinet minister put it to me “you cannot focus group a chess game like Brexit and the election”, but we will find out if that’s true.
It’s worth remembering just why the PM is so exercised by the Benn Act: it will force him to delay Brexit beyond October 31 - and make him break his “do or die” pledge to voters. He’s factually wrong about it “surrendering” all power to Brussels, because (as we discuss in our Commons People podcast) the act has a clause to give MPs the right to reject any extension from the EU. Not that detail will stop him.
Former PM Sir John Major tonight lambasted Johnson’s “language of division and hate”. That kind of criticism is priced in by Downing Street. But Major then tried to put his finger on what he thinks may be Johnson’s cunning plan to avoid the Benn Act: an “Order of Council”, which can be passed by Privy Councillors without involving The Queen or parliament, could be used to simply delay implementation of the Act.
Major may or may not be onto something, but ministers are quietly confident they have some workaround the legislation. James Duddridge gave a real hint today when he told MPs: “The [Benn] bill is not perfect...The government believes (it) does have deficiencies and its effect is unclear.” Whenever the election comes, Johnson is convinced he can win and win big.
One former cabinet minister told me last night that Labour voters in his constituency were breaking 75% for the Lib Dems and 25% for Farage. “It’s like 1983, the opposition is split. And we’re going to grind our enemies into the dust.” And that wall of cash from Tory donors, plus ruthless “surrender” messaging, may help them do just that.
🔊 Commons People
We talk to Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government and Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe about this extraordinary week. Tune in here or search for “Commons People” wherever you get your podcasts.
“This is a walk in the park compared to the referendum. We are enjoying this, we are going to leave and we are going to win.”
Dominic Cummings on why he’s so confident his tactics will win out.
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson said that “tempers need to come down, and people need to come together” because it was only by getting Brexit done that national “anxieties” about it would cease.
Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames said he had been appalled by Johnson’s language and he should now “start acting like a prime minister”.
Labour MP Jess Phillips revealed a man had been arrested after trying to “kick the door” of her constituency office while reportedly shouting that she was a “fascist”.
Yvette Cooper’s daughter revealed on Twitter she is “scared every single day” for her mother’s safety.
Johnson maintained his 100% loss record in Commons votes, as MPs voted by 306 to 289 to reject a motion asking for the Commons to adjourn during the Tory party conference. The conference will still go ahead, with the PM expected to speak next Wednesday and PMQs to be taken by Dominic Raab.
Luciana Berger confirmed she would be running as a Lib Dem candidate in Finchley and Golders Green.
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