Why Submarine Boris Can’t Stay Below The Surface For Too Long

The PM needs to make good on his promises to the north. Could George Osborne help him?

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Breaking the Waves?

Boris Johnson is not normally the shy and retiring type. Spot him at an NHS hospital or a new rail project, especially in the north of England of the midlands, and you can be sure there will be a TV camera in tow.

Today, having shown an uncharacteristic reluctance to appear in public to discuss the Iraq crisis, he broke cover for the first time since his Christmas holiday. Of course, he had little choice but to turn up to Prime Minister’s Questions (Dominic Raab, his first secretary of state was heading to the US, after all), but he still dodged pretty much every question thrown at him by Jeremy Corbyn.

What Johnson did manage to do was to get his key soundbite on the TV news, namely that Qasem Soleimani had “the blood of British troops on his hands”. There was no detailed evidence given for the claim, let alone any specifics on the US claim that the Iranian military chief was preparing an imminent attack that justified his assassination in international law. Instead “most reasonable people” would think the operation was justified, he said.

That’s exactly the kind of hit-and-run approach that Labour finds so difficult to get a handle on right now. And it is proving similarly hard for the Opposition to come up with answers to Johnson’s splash-the-cash politics of amnesia, where he washes his hands of 10 years of Conservative rule and posits himself as the nation’s saviour.

In PMQs (restricted to a swift half hour thanks to Speaker Hoyle), the PM managed to shrug off Tory austerity not least because the MPs asking for more funds were (literally) on his side. He talked of ‘record sums’ being (now) invested in education, got the Chancellor to say the Eden Project would indeed get an offshoot in Morecambe, spirited up concern over an NHS ward closure in Bishop Auckland and said “the bell is tolling for West Midlands Rail”.

In every case, these were public service failures on the Tories’ own watch, yet Johnson portrayed himself as the head of a new government determined to fix them all. Uppermost in his mind of course is that he has to keep the promises to voters made by all those Conservative MPs who smashed through Labour’s ‘red wall’. The ‘northern powerhouse’ and ‘midlands engine’ are certainly back in business as never before.

Which reminds me of that other Tory politician who made an artform out of surfacing only when he needed to. George Osborne, once dubbed the ‘Submarine Chancellor’, was on the Today programme smoothly outlining why the Conservatives have long championed public infrastructure and investment in the north and midlands (even before they had a direct electoral imperative to do so).

Former arch-Remainer Osborne even suggested that it would be “no bad thing” if the UK was free of EU rules on financial services. That prompted what some will think an outlandish thought: could he be brought into a Johnson government? Could Lord Osborne of Tatton serve as Secretary of State for Regional Infrastructure? Stranger things have happened, as Peter Mandelson’s comeback under Gordon Brown proved (and Brown ally Jim O’Neill got an infrastructure role under Cameron).

Osborne is of course associated with the austerity Johnson tries to avoid, but don’t forget the PM said the cuts were needed to rescue the nation’s finances after Labour. And who better to push through the Heseltinian good works of which the PM is so fond? Especially if they are in the Lords and no longer a threat for the top job?‌

Although Johnson looks in a very strong position right now, he constantly tells friends of his “deep sense of responsibility” to deliver for the north, not just on his 2016 Vote Leave promises but also now on his 2019 pledges to invest in the region. In order to prove it, he will have to do better than sending a junior transport minister (Chris Heaton-Harris) to a rail conference as he did today.‌

Heaton-Harris said “we are absolutely near the end game” of the Northern Rail franchise, but with the Trans-Pennine route also causing misery, he couldn’t promise “change overnight” in service. Government sources tell us there will be a significant move on Northern Rail on Thursday, which suggests Johnson really is focused on the issue.

If it looks like he’s failing to deliver, and the voters tire of the Submarine Boris approach, Labour could spring back to life quicker than people think.

Quote Of The Day

“That man had the blood of British troops on his hands”

Boris Johnson weeps no tears for Iranian military chief Qasem Soleimani

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Keir Starmer won the backing of Britain’s biggest union Unison and cleared the parliamentary hurdle in the Labour leadership with the backing of 24 MPs (though in reality he has at least 42). He also appointed Simon Fletcher, a former key aide to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Ed Miliband.

Rebecca Long Bailey finally got her own campaign director, Momentum’s Jon Lansman and comms guy Matt Zarb-Cousin.

Barry Gardiner is considering a run for the Labour leadership, HuffPost revealed. Allies said he had the broad support, experience and loyalty needed for the top job. Unite’s Len McCluskey denied having been in contact with Gardiner over his plans. Ian Murray impressed colleagues in the deputy leader hustings and secured 20 nominations, but Angela Rayner is way ahead with 45.‌

Boris Johnson and new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had a “positive” first meeting in Downing Street, No.10 said. But earlier, she used an LSE speech to warn it was “basically impossible” to negotiate a comprehensive free trade deal by the deadline of December 2020. Johnson is insisting he won’t extend the transition period by a single day.

The Commons has rejected an attempt by Labour to reinstate child refugee protection rights in the Brexit bill. MPs voted 348 to 252 against the amendment. Government sources insist the rights will be negotiated with Brussels in coming months and then introduced via secondary legislation.

Ulster Unionist peer Ken Maginnis has been named and shamed in the Commons by SNP MP Hannah Bardell for shouting abuse at security staff who refused to allow him into parliament without a pass. Maginnis claimed Bardell was trying to “settle a score” because she is “queer” and he is opposed to gay marriage.

Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby and Corbyn’s chief of staff Karie Murphy have backed off plans (revealed by HuffPost) for a radical reorganisation of party staff. Following an outcry from MPs and unions, Formby emailed staff to say the review “will not formally start until a new leader is in place”.

Dame Eleanor Laing, Dame Rosie Winterton and Nigel Evans were elected Deputy Speakers of the House of Commons.

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