Is Boris Johnson Lying To His One-Nation Tory MPs About A No-Deal Brexit Manifesto?

Damian Green comes away reassured. But is there more to the PM's promise than meets the eye?

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When Boris Johnson got his first pair of glasses a few years back, he admitted his vanity prevented him wearing them regularly. “It’s a point of machismo..I use them [only] if I have to,” he said. A year later, he finally confessed: “I’m now so short-sighted, I’m blind!”

Right now, several Tory MPs fear that the prime minister is suffering from acute political myopia, with a narrow focus on a no-deal general election message. Dominic Cummings’ recent texts and WhatsApps certainly got many ministers so nervous that they raised the issue in cabinet this week.

In that infamous message to the Spectator, Cummings didn’t just concede that the UK could still be in the EU by October 31. He went on to say such a scenario would force the Tories to toughen up their pitch to the voters: “To marginalise the Brexit party, we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’.”

Today, worried One Nation group Tory MPs went to Downing Street and emerged to claim that Johnson had promised them he would not draft a no-deal Tory manifesto. Former cabinet minister Damian Green declared to the Guardian: “We looked each other in the eye. I accept and believe the reassurances....He has no intention of putting a no-deal policy in a manifesto.” The PM had apparently passed the eye test.

But has he? The word ‘intention’ suggests a degree of elasticity, for a start. It’s worth remembering too that Johnson once told the One Nation group that he was “not attracted to arcane procedures such as the prorogation of parliament”. One illegal shutdown of Westminster later, you’d think they may have learned their lesson.

On the day she announced her resignation as Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson memorably said: “I stared him right in the eye. I asked him out: ‘I need to know. Are you actually trying to get a deal or not?’ And he categorically assured me that he was.” Since then, the PM has indeed come up with a deal, but one that critics claim was deliberately designed to fail - and to trigger a snap election that would see him blame parliament, Labour and Brussels for Brexit delay.

Many Tory MPs believe that no-deal has to be in the party’s manifesto, but only alongside a Brexit plan that allows Johnson to show he is being both reasonable and more statesmanlike than Nigel Farage. The Brexit proposal would have to be tougher than the current one offered, not least with less cash for Brussels in a Brexit divorce bill, but some kind of plan is still needed, they say.

However, some in the former ‘Vote Leave’ caucus that dominates No.10 and the cabinet is pushing the PM hard for a simple, clear no-deal manifesto message. While they know Labour and the Lib Dems will try to scare the hell out of the public with tales of mass job losses and bankruptcy, they think it won’t work.

Crucially, they point to polling evidence (as ex-No.10 research adviser James Johnson detailed in today’s Times) that shows that many of the public are completely unmoved by stories warning of ‘no-deal’ food or medicine shortages. For many, the issue is seen as one of patriotism: ‘We’re British, we’ll get through it’.

One Nation group chair Damian Green is a Kent MP, but one of his backbench colleagues from the county told me today that local people are already inured to the threats about no-deal. “They’ve seen many miles of spare lanes on the motorway barricaded off for months - and still they want no-deal. People just aren’t scared,” the MP told me.

Johnson and Leo Varadkar will tomorrow try one last time (in a mystery venue in the north west of England, sans media) to rescue the deal many Tory MPs desperately want. But many of them think that if agreement is deemed impossible before October 31, he will be right to keep his ‘eyes on the prize’ of winning an election.

And although a formal pact with the Brexit Party was ruled out by Johnson today, many of his closest aides think that only a no-deal pitch will persuade Farage to call off his troops in Tory areas, while targeting Labour Leavers in marginals the Tories can win. That’s the real ‘twin-track’ strategy many of them favour most of all.

“It exposes your intentions to intervene at all levels to stop Brexit, it is immoral, shame on you….You confirm to us every day it was right to leave.′

Brexit Party MEP Belinda de Lucy attacks European Parliament president David Sassoli for holding talks with Speaker John Bercow

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