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For all their huge differences, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn share some uncannily similar traits. They hate personal confrontation, jealously guard their private lives and much prefer the campaign stump to the Commons despatch box. Most of all, both put a huge premium on loyalty and love to delegate to those they trust most.
That mix of loyalty and delegation is personified by their respective chiefs of staff, Dominic Cummings and Karie Murphy. Both act as licenced guard dogs and are often kept on a long leash by their respective bosses. But events today underlined the political risks that result when their warning bark is matched by their bite.
In appearing to brief broadcasters that Johnson’s Brexit deal had effectively been killed off by Angela Merkel, Cummings came close to forcing the collapse of any hopes of a deal with the EU. The ‘No.10 source’ claim, that the German chancellor had claimed Northern Ireland could never EU customs arrangement, proved incendiary.
Keir Starmer tried to put his finger on the politics as he let rip to MPs: “It’s parliament’s fault, it’s the opposition’s fault, it’s the Benn Act, it’s Germany, it’s Ireland - absolutely defining the character of this prime minister, a man who never takes responsibility for his own actions.” More importantly, Donald Tusk said that ‘blame game’ was now transparent.
I understand that the 30-minute 8am phone call (described officially by No.10 as ‘frank’) between Johnson and Merkel divided into three parts. The PM started by seeking Merkel’s help over what he saw as the EU not engaging seriously with his plans and running the clock down. She stressed it was a matter for the EU as a 27 to respond, not her individually. But when pushed by Johnson on what was possible, Merkel did raise that Northern Ireland’s unique status meant it would need some form of customs and regulatory alignment.
Johnson was taken aback by Merkel’s language, so the No.10 source wasn’t inaccurate in their account of the call. Some ministers believe the real crime was in leaking Merkel’s private thoughts at all. What also irritates them is that the Merkel tweets broke as they were actually in cabinet raising complaints about Cummings’ previous briefing to the Spectator from Monday night.
It was the threat in that briefing - that EU states that agreed to delay Brexit would face withdrawal of UK security cooperation - that looked like a real example of Cummings overreach. The PM was forced to tell critics in cabinet “you shouldn’t believe what you read - you should listen to what I say instead”.
But what worries some ministers most is not the minutiae of the diplomatic spats over Brexit, it’s the idea that the Tory party will fight the next election as the ‘no-deal’ party. Cummings’ most telling text last night was this: “If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived. To marginalise the Brexit Party, we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’.” Some Tory MPs, who last week loved the compromise plan, think their manifesto should include the plan in tandem with no-deal.
Yet on this question of making no-deal a Tory election message, it feels like Cummings is only reflecting the PM’s own view. He is simply his master’s voice, albeit spoken in much more strident tones. Yes, he sometimes ‘goes rogue’, but some Tory MPs think it’s Johnson himself who is driving all this - even if it risks trashing their party’s economic record and reputation for pragmatism. Even the possibility of fresh resignations by Nicky Morgan and Julian Smith are shrugged off by some in No.10 in the belief the voters will focus on the big picture come the snap election. Many Johnson allies revel in the idea of the UK as a ‘rogue nation’ breaking free of Brussels constraints.
Which brings us to Corbyn and Karie Murphy, who has been moved to a new role ahead of that election. Like Cummings, many of her fiercest critics are within her own party. Allies say she is just robustly loyal, but enemies say her ‘freelancing’ has actually made life much harder for her boss. I’m told the final straw was the devastating critique (published in full today) by former policy chief Andrew Fisher, combined with Murphy’s role in Jon Lansman’s attempt to topple Tom Watson as deputy leader. I understand Corbyn was most shocked to learn some things had apparently been done in his name when he had not given any direct approval.
What was however striking was that Corbyn himself, having concluded Murphy had now lost the confidence of the leadership team, decided not to break the news in person. It was left to Lord Kerslake, a former senior civil servant and adviser to John McDonnell, to ring her with the news. I’m told that someone with civil service experience is now set to replace Murphy as chief of staff. Finally, Cummings, who famously loathes Whitehall, would have a counterpart who really couldn’t be more different from himself.
Quote Of The Day
“It means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever.”
That infamous ‘No.10 source’ tells broadcasters about the Merkel-Johnson phone call.
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson and Irish PM Leo Varadkar held a 40-minute phone call and agreed to meet this Thursday for more talks on the UK’s Brexit plan.
Former cabinet minister and Boris Johnson ally Andrew Mitchell attacked anonymous No.10 “quasi-official briefings” on Brexit. Independent MP Chris Leslie condemned the Downing Street sources for encouraging “racist attacks against the Germans from Leave.EU and others”
Amber Rudd branded the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings “angry and desperate”.
The National Farmers Union warned farmers will feel “betrayed” by a government plan not to impose tariffs on the majority of goods entering the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The UK announced it will not tax 88% of imports but the NFU said without a Brexit deal its members face tariffs on exports while overseas rivals will not be taxed.
Productivity in the UK fell at its fastest annual pace in five years in the April-to-June quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. It fell by 0.5%, after two previous quarters of zero growth.
Boris Johnson admitted being the author of a lost “blockbuster” movie script set in war-torn Iraq and Syria. He told the Standard he had posted ‘Mission To Assyria’ to a “very distinguished director” in Hollywood but heard nothing back. His pitch has been described as “hilariously awful”.
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