1. INTEL INSIDE
Can he be trusted? With Boris Johnson the undoubted front-runner in the Tory leadership, that’s the question that still hovers in the back of the minds of many party members as their postal ballot papers land on their doormats today and tomorrow. And there’s no more obvious way of working out if someone can be trusted than on intelligence matters.
The BBC’s multiple-sourced story this morning reveals that Johnson was not given full access to all intelligence material when he became Foreign Secretary in 2016. Now, it seems this may in part have been driven by Theresa May’s ‘control freakery’, and some spooks were clearly not comfortable with the decision, but it does go to the heart of Johnson’s trustworthiness.
There’s a damning line in Gordon Corera’s report that “in the end a compromise was agreed in which Mr Johnson would technically have the right to see intelligence although it is not clear if he was shown all intelligence as a matter of course”. Just as crucial, some in MI6 took legal advice as to whether they could sustain a position in which the foreign secretary was responsible for operations for which he was not shown the intelligence “product”. Even under the 30-year rule we will probably never find out that legal advice.
It’s fair to say that rumours abound within Whitehall and Westminster about Johnson’s inability to keep a secret. The French were particularly upset when he let slip sensitive information, and other examples swirl around. The Sun (which had a Johnson intel story first last night) reveals two instances, one where Johnson blurted out classified information about Syria during a Cabinet meeting, the other when he revealed to the media details of an investigation into the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013. “The PM didn’t think Boris could be trusted because he had a loose tongue. He made the agencies anxious. He wasn’t told everything because of that,” a senior source tells the paper.
The most glaring example of negligence was in the case of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, when Johnson garbled her role and resulted in her continued incarceration in Iran. Only this week, her husband Richard told ITV’s Peston: “It’s not about saying sorry, I think for me the issue was about taking responsibility, and government is about dealing with situations that happen and how you manage them through.”
This all comes down to another question: can he be serious? When he was London Mayor, Johnson was lucky enough never to be tested by a terror attack. His allies point out he was trusted with some pretty sensitive material back then, but just how would a Prime Minister Johnson react both in private and public to a fresh outrage on British soil? The fact that we still don’t know that question may give some Tory members pause for thought.
And speaking of pauses, it may be that some of those 160,000 members won’t be sending back their ballot papers this weekend. Tory insiders report that because a chunk of members send their children to private school, and those schools break up today, with some families actually be on holiday next week. So they may hear any fallout from the ITV debate and even the Andrew Neil grilling before they send their votes in. Will Jeremy Hunt risk revealing that he was given full access to intelligence from the very start of his own tenure at the Foreign Office?
2. C’MON PHIL THE NOISE
Philip Hammond has given an interview to Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast in which he makes clear he would vote for any cross-party plan to stop a no-deal Brexit. “It would be frankly rather shocking if the House of Commons, the elected representatives of the people, could be simply sidelined.”
David Gauke has made similar noises in The House magazine, saying “Given that we have an activist speaker, given there is a parliamentary majority against no deal, a way will be found.” Note, however that neither man would countenance joining Corbyn in a vote of no confidence.
Hammond also signals that he couldn’t serve in a Cabinet willing to enact a no-deal. Gauke too has suggested he is in the same position. David Lidington has told the Times he couldn’t serve in a government that was prepared to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. Add in Rory Stewart and you already have four ministers ready to walk when Johnson becomes PM.
All of which makes life interesting on Johnson’s first day in office. I report HERE that his allies are looking at delaying his Cabinet reshuffle until after MPs break up for their summer recess - precisely to avoid any backlash. With Corbyn the main enemy, the focus will be on uniting the Tory tribe, not firing people and sparking instant rebellion. Many around Johnson remember the brutal way May sacked Osborne and Nicky Morgan the day she took office and a more considered approach is being advocated.
Johnson is braced for a Corbyn-led vote of no confidence on Thursday July 25 and even Labour expect him to postpone the ministerial changes to the day after. But given that he is expected to make a statement in the Commons on the Thursday, just what would his frontbench look like alongside him? Would Hammond, Gauke, Lidington and Stewart turn up, show support and wait to resign the following day? Or would they leave gaps that would be a gift to the Opposition?
3. WELSH RARE BIT
That wafer thin Tory Commons majority will get even thinner next month if the party loses the Brecon by-election. And the chances of a Lib Dem win have become even stronger after both Plaid Cymru and the Greens revealed overnight that they would not contest the seat. The Times’s Kate Devlin has the story, and it’s an example of how some deals can be done in the name of the pro-Remain cause. There’s no chance Labour will step aside given the party’s current confusion on Brexit, let alone its tradition of never doing deals in Westminster elections.
Plaid clearly think they’re agreeing to this pact from a position of strength in other areas where it is the main opponent to Labour. Last night in the heart of the Valleys, the Welsh nationalists took a council seat from Labour with a big swing. Its vote went up 16 ponts to 42%, while Labour’s plunged 15% to 27%.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Donald Trump’s latest bizarre claim in his 4th July speech, that airports existed in 1776. “Our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do.”
4. NORTHERN EXPOSURE
Boris Johnson last night used a hustings to proclaim the UK would become ’the greatest place on earth”. It was yet another reminder of the Trump style rhetoric he uses (will he produce ‘Make Britain Great Again’ caps?). But the real test of his vision of “the greatest place to live, to raise a family, the greatest place to send your kids to school, the greatest place to breathe clean air” will be in Leave voting towns like Oldham.
The Manchester Evening News reporter Jen Williams has written a superb feature on life in Oldham, cataloguing the impact of government cuts since 2011 but also a wider powerlessness in the face of the loss of cotton mills, engineering factories and now high street shops and public services. Yet there is also a real sense of local pride and innovation against the odds. Well worth your time.
5. FOR FOX’S SAKE
Jeremy Hunt’s flip flopping on foxhunting continues to be a bad look. Last night on Question Time, Hunt supporter Vicky Ford said: “I would have said differently. I don’t think we should spend any time discussing this. We’ve got bigger issues. I don’t want to spend a single second of parliamentary time discussing this issue.”
This week’s Commons People podcast is out. ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman and the Spectator’s Katy Balls join us to chat through Hunt’s foxhunting gaffe (and why it shows a prospective PM has to think nimbly about a whole range of issues), Johnson’s leadership style and Corbyn’s spat with the civil service. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom and below on iTunes.
If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/