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Do-or-die another day
“Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die”. Into the valley of no-deal Brexit rode the 600 or so Tory activists in Manchester on Wednesday, roused by Boris Johnson’s first speech as leader to his party conference.
Corbyn to the Left of him, Farage to the Right of him, the prime minister uttered his mantra that “we are coming out of the EU on October 31, come what may”. As subtle as the brick he once wielded at a previous conference, he made the Halloween pledge five times.
When Johnson later revealed his much anticipated new Brexit plan, Brussels refrained from saying this was the charge of the trite brigade, even if that’s exactly what they thought. Jean-Claude Juncker knew that rejecting the offer instantly would be a gift to No.10. Juncker told Johnson he would “examine the text objectively”, despite its “problematic points”. But Leo Varadkar’s downbeat reaction told the real story: we’re heading for no-deal.
The PM knows that his Tory supporters, and many voters, don’t care about the minutiae of backstops and trade zones. In a clear sign that we are now entering the blame game proper, he used his conference speech to predict the EU may get bogged down in what is “essentially a technical discussion” about customs.
The devilish detail certainly seemed miles away when the Tory audience broke into a football chant of ‘Boris! Boris! Boris!’ before and after he spoke. Johnson used to get similar adulation when he was the lead rebel showman at fringe meetings in conferences gone by. What’s striking about the past fortnight is just how much the ‘fringe’ is now the mainstream and on the main platform, in both major parties.
Just how Europhobic his party have become was underlined when the PM tried his usual bumbling call-and-response trick with the crowd. “This is not an anti-European party, this is not an anti-European country!” he boomed. “We are European, we love Europe!” A tumbleweed moment of near silence followed, forcing him to say, “I love Europe anyway, I love it!”
It’s clear that Johnson really is ready to leave, do or die. One who knows him well says that delegating the job to key aide Dominic Cummings proved he wants to subcontract ‘the dirty business’ to a plumber who can unblock the Brexit pipe. As Cummings told colleagues this week, he’s only going to stick around “to get this shit-show sorted”.
Cummings’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan is one of the best party conference taglines in years, partly because it sounds like a voter speaking not a politician. Ominously for Labour, the coming election feels more like 2016 referendum (winner, one D Cummings) than the 2017 election. Johnson didn’t announce a single new policy today, and the spin on ‘40 new hospitals’ and a higher minimum wage could fall apart.
But even linking the Tories with good news on the NHS and low pay is part of the gameplan. The hardball on immigration (note Priti Patel talked of Labour “surrendering our borders” yesterday) will be ramped up even more too. Vote Leave is back and as Johnson himself said “we’re going to need a bigger bus”.
What scares Johnson more than Corbyn is Nigel Farage eating into the Tory vote in key marginals. Farage already has a ready-made attack line if the PM should somehow pass a new withdrawal agreement, saying that would be ‘the real Surrender Act’. Johnson has whittled down the Brexit Party as much as he’s increased the Tory vote, yet the jitters continue.
Even some Tory MPs assume that fear of Farage is why the PM unveiled a Brexit plan today that seemed deliberately designed to be rejected by the EU. Titling it ‘A Fair And Reasonable Compromise’ seemed to critics like the ultimate doublespeak, as they view it as unfair, unreasonable and uncompromising. Or, as Good Friday Agreement architect Jonathan Powell put it, “It’s a scam.”
Johnson’s key line in the letter to Juncker - that the plan offered “a broad landing zone” - was a hint that this was only the first step in further talks, rather than the take-it-or-leave it fare briefed in advance. The main problem is that there just isn’t much time for any landing (hard or soft) before that Halloween deadline passes.
Which brings us back to Johnson’s broadbrush, feel-good speech in Manchester - and to the Benn Act which would postpone Brexit once more. If there’s no deal with either Brussels or parliament, some in his team are beginning to think the unthinkable: a short delay in quitting the EU in order to allow a general election in November or December.
Assuming the Benn Act cannot be bypassed, and if he is forced by the courts to write a letter requesting a Brexit delay, Johnson may deploy his trademark chutzpah - blaming everyone but himself. Once we are past October 31, it’s looking very likely that Jeremy Corbyn will finally call that vote of no confidence and a winter general election will kick in. The PM can then ‘do-or-die’ another day - on polling day.
One of Johnson’s most telling conference lines today was that “I have been prime minister for only seventy days”. That felt like both an attempt to distance himself from the May morass (and Cameron austerity) and to reassure all those Leave voters who say ‘he’s the first Leaver PM, cut him some slack’. If he opts for a no-deal election pledge, Tory moderates will recoil but Farage may redirect his troops to attack only Labour MPs.
And he may get away with it in the eyes of key voters (just as he may have ‘got away with it’’ after this week’s twin rows over alleged groping and spending public cash on a lover). God loves a tryer and so do some of the British public. Just being seen to try to get us out by October 31 may be good enough for a public weary of years of Brexit deadlock. Johnson is that rare political beast who could somehow increase his popularity the more he fails.
Sir John Major recently claimed the Conservatives had turned into an ugly Brexit Party tribute band. But the truth is they are now The Boris Party, for good or ill.
Quote Of The Day
“Can you think which communist cosmonaut to coax into the cockpit?”
Boris Johnson alliterates his way towards sending Jeremy Corbyn into orbit
Wednesday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson submitted his Brexit offer to the EU and said it should form the basis of “rapid negotiations” towards a new exit deal that scraps the Irish backstop.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar said the plans “do not fully meet the objectives of the backstop” following a phone call with Boris Johnson. But he said he would study the plans further and consult with other EU leaders.
The government confirmed it plans to prorogue Parliament next Tuesday and hold a Queen’s Speech on 14 October. As a result, there will be no Prime Minister’s Questions next week. The vote on the Queen’s Speech will come about a week later.
Diane Abbott made history as the first black person ever to lead for their party in PMQs.
During the debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill, Theresa May used her first speech in the Commons since standing down as PM to speak passionately about tackling the issue. Labour MP Rosie Duffield got a standing ovation after revealing the “constant hurt” she experienced in an abusive relationship.
Speaker John Bercow has called an anti-abortion campaign’s targeting of pregnant, pro-choice MP Stella Creasy “vile”.
Tory chairman James Cleverly warned that if Brexit is not delivered there could be violence on the streets. “If the message we put out to millions of voters is that change is not through the ballot box they may use other methods... the referendum was a warning shot.”
What I’m Reading
The strength of the far-right in Austria - The Atlantic
We were joined in the Brewdog Bar by Manchester’s finest politics news brains Jen Williams and Rob Ford to chat through just how the Tories’ week has gone.
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