The Waugh Zone Friday July 26, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

“He will obfuscate, avoid accountability, brazenly steal policies, play to the gallery and close down as many attack lines as he can.” That was the all too-prescient verdict on Boris Johnson just a week ago from Simon Fletcher, days before the former London Mayor’s arrival at No.10. Fletcher is perfectly positioned to offer a verdict, as he was not only the former chief of staff to Ken Livingstone (twice defeated by Boris), he was Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign manager too.

Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Johnson displayed every single one of the tactics Fletcher had warned about. He didn’t even bother to answer many of Corbyn’s questions (May would patiently write each one down, then try to hit back on each in turn). After a slow start, he roused the backbenches behind him with roars of approval that his predecessor rarely managed. Most of all, he used attack as the best form of defence (calling Corbyn a flip-flopping ‘Remainer’ was just one example). This wasn’t a Commons statement, it was a preview of a head-to-head, televised general election debate.

Pablo Picasso famously said “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. And what struck me most yesterday was the way Johnson nakedly purloined policies from his opponents. The ideas could be from Tory leadership rivals, they could be from Labour, they could be from the Lib Dems, he wasn’t fussy as long as he put his own stamp on them. Never forget that ‘Boris bikes’ in London were originally a Livingstone plan craftily co-opted by his arch rival.

Today, Johnson has got to work on copying both Labour’s and Sajid Javid’s plan to reverse May’s police cuts and install 20,000 more officers. Shadow police minister Louise Haigh (surely due a shadow cabinet promotion for turning a traditional Tory issue into a Labour vote-winner?) says Johnson ‘can’t be trusted’ but it’s unclear whether that charge can stick. In his statement, Johnson also talked about “proper sentencing for serious violent and sexual offenders” and you can bet he will repeatedly attack Corbyn and Diane Abbott as ‘soft’ on crime.

In a classic Johnsonian ‘cake and eat it’ approach, he will simultaneously sound liberal on immigration while insisting he will deliver the ‘control’ that Brexit promised. Yesterday he effectively ditched the Cameron/May 100k net migration target, swapping it with an Aussie-style points system. For good measure he told Labour’s Rupa Huq they ‘share a view’ on the merits of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, while also getting in a dig at May for rejecting the idea (adding her “Windrush fiasco” may never have happened had she done so).

Johnson chucked spending commitments around like confetti, shrugging off Meg Hillier’s point that most were unfunded and countering that “the spending pledges I have made have been modest…so far”. His sums may not add up, but here’s a PM ready to tell the public he’s turning the taps on and ending austerity. Buried in the two-hour Q&A, he even seemed to copy John McDonnell’s National Transformation Fund. Asked by a Tory MP to back a ‘stand-alone UK investment and development bank’, he replied “Not only will I endorse that suggestion, but I invite my hon. Friend to meet my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss it.”

Another clue that this was an election campaign launch was Johnson’s attempt to nick Corbyn’s slogan: “We are the party of the people. We are the party of the many, and they are the party of the few.” Of course that slogan was Tony Blair’s long before it was Corbyn’s. And one can easily imagine a Johnson election pledgecard that apes but adapts new Labour’s 1997 list: deliver Brexit, more police and tougher sentencing, NHS hospital upgrades, more money for schools, tax cuts for middle earners and higher living wage, a roads-rail-and-broadband boost, a new generation of green jobs to deliver net zero emissions.

Some around Corbyn believe that the rightward lurch of the new Cabinet plays into their hands, forcing ‘moderate’ Labour voters to stick with their party. Yet with Corbyn’s message on Brexit so fuzzy and unconvincing, it could be the Lib Dems who benefit most in the culture wars.

But his spending splurge seems designed to target two other key audiences: Labour Leave voters (who loved the £350m/week bus pledge) and all those moderate Tories who fear a no-deal, Singapore-style economy. No wonder the Tories have been trialling Facebook election ad tests. And no wonder Johnson is making speeches in the Midlands today, up north tomorrow and in Scotland next week. Steel yourself, Britain, that election looks close.

Johnson’s Commons performance yesterday underlined his tactic of making himself a moving target that’s hard to pin down or shoot down. His speaking style is bitty, freeform, hit-and-run. But for all those cheers as he punched hard at Corbyn and jibed McDonnell (I’m amazed no senior Tory has until now clocked that the shadow chancellor was a rate capping rebel so leftwing he had to be sacked by Livingstone), there was unease too. The glum faces of several Tory backbenchers (and don’t forget just under half of them wanted another leader) told their own story: fear that a no-deal Brexit would trash the party’s record for competence for a generation.

Those fears were heightened as the PM painted his red lines on the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ an even deeper red. Previously he’s said it couldn’t be tweaked, but yesterday he went further, saying it was “divisive” and “anti-democratic” and needed “abolition”. Crucially, he made its removal from the withdrawal agreement a pre-condition of any fresh talks with Brussels, warning he was “ready to meet and talk on this basis”.

In a phone call with Jean-Claude Juncker, Johnson rammed home his refusal to budge. In a note to EU leaders, Michel Barnier said getting rid of the backstop was “of course unacceptable”. Ireland and Brussels are standing firm too and those no-deal preparations on both sides of the Channel look more necessary than ever. It did feel as if Johnson was deliberately making impossible demands in the knowledge that neither the EU nor the Commons would agree to them. And if feels that he wants to be pushed into a general election that could finally solve the deadlock.

Our own Arj Singh earlier this week quoted one Tory MP on Johnson’s hard choices ahead: “He’s got to shaft someone, and I hope it’s Baker.” Last night, self-styled Brexit ‘hardman’ Steve Baker rejected the offer of a job in the Brexit department, pointing out its real power to prep for no-deal now lay with Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office.

His walkout was a reminder that there is still a hardcore of the European Research Group (which after the departure of Jacob Rees-Mogg will now surely be chaired once more by Baker?) who won’t tolerate any backsliding by the PM.

Watch Mark Francois tell Newnsight “Herr Juncker in the bunker would say that, wouldn’t he?”

Iran test firing a missile in the Gulf this morning has ratcheted up tensions. Will Johnson use his links to Trump to work jointly on the issue? There are already whispers he could say Tehran has behaved so badly that the UK will now join the US in ditching the nuclear deal. That would do more to undermine foreign office morale than even Kim Darroch’s sacking. More importantly, it could mean we are heading for another Middle East nightmare.

Boris Johnson plans to get a new dog for Downing Street, the Mirror reveals. In the past, the PM’s messy locks often made him resemble a shaggy (ahem) old English sheepdog. The Cabinet is made in his own image, so why not his pet pooch?


The WaughZone is taking a summer break (if you think it’s exhausting reading the news, just try writing it). I’d like to thank all our readers, including ministers and shadow ministers to backbench MPs and spads, for your tips and intel over the past mad few months. The email-blog will be back with a brand new look and format in September. See you all the other side!


Our final Commons People podcast of the parliamentary term is out. Hear us chinwag with Anand Menon, chief of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank (and no-deal expert) about the reshuffle, snap elections and how Johnson’s opponents can tackle him. There’s also an end of year quiz, and some marshmallow chewing. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom and below for iTunes.

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