1. THE FOX HUNT
Having ridiculed Boris Johnson’s ‘fake deadline’ of October 31 for getting the UK out of the EU ‘do or die’, Jeremy Hunt has decided that a tougher stance is the way to the hearts of all those 160,000 Tory party members. Overnight, Hunt has gone all-in with his own plans to mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit, pledging £6bn for farmers and fishermen and £13bn in corporation tax cuts to stimulate the economy.
It’s a shift that will dismay some ‘moderate’ Tories who had hoped that Hunt would offer a different vision to Johnson. What’s the point of pushing no-deal when Johnson already owns that brand, and can make the case like he really, really means it? Liam Fox, one of the few leading Brexiteers to back Hunt, is his proxy on the morning media round and the plan sounds like one that a Prime Minister Fox would indeed have drafted. On Sky, Fox said Hunt’s no-deal plan was ‘realistic and honest’ (though on Today he admitted the break-up of the UK would be a “real threat” under no-deal).
But with ballot papers sent out this weekend (and most members return them pretty damned quickly), Team Hunt know their man hasn’t got much time to win members round. For many of them, Johnson is the predator, Hunt is the prey. In what looks like a last-ditch masochism strategy, he gives a speech at 11am followed by a Q&A and then appears on SkyNews for a 7pm interview with Kay Burley (and she won’t pull her punches even though this was meant to be a head-to-head debate with Johnson).
If Hunt says the word ‘turbocharge the economy’ one more time, political hacks’ heads may explode. Yet he has to somehow look like he will protect Britons hit by no-deal. This is particularly true after he walked straight into that elephant trap of a question from Andrew Marr that gifted Labour the headline ‘firms going bust is a price worth paying for Brexit’. Of course, Hunt didn’t actually say those words but when asked if he was prepared to countenance bankrupt family owned businesses, he replied: “I would do so, but I’d do it with a heavy heart”.
The problem is that Hunt risks sounding not just like a paler version of Johnson, but like a paler version of Jeremy Corbyn. The idea of splurging Philip Hammond’s £20bn ‘headroom’ will dismay some fiscal conservatives, but it also undermines the Tories’ whole ‘magic money tree’ attack on Corbynomics (a mix of extra borrowing and more spending to stimulate the economy). After years of austerity, some voters may well ask why they should buy Coke Zero when they can have The Real Thing?
2. NOT REMOTELY HAWK-WARD
As for Boris Johnson, he will float above the fray today, safe in the knowledge that his strategy for wooing Tory MPs and then members is paying off. It’s not so much that he is avoiding media scrutiny, but more that he actually ignores it even in an interview. His session with SkyNews’s Sophy Ridge yesterday was a case in point, where he shrugged aside EU threats of a sudden imposition of tariffs in a no-deal Brexit, suggesting Brussels would agree a ‘standstill’ arrangement.
There’s a growing mood among the EU27 and at Westminster that a Halloween no-deal exit is inevitable. This is partly because parliament, for all its anti no-deal majority, may not find a way to force Johnson’s hand. It’s partly because there just aren’t enough MPs (Tories or independents) willing to back a no-confidence vote. And it’s partly because some in Brussels think the Dover gridlocked chaos of no-deal (even with an EU-imposed tighter border in Northern Ireland) will force Johnson back to the negotiating table with his tail between his legs.
One reason for the difficulty British politics finds itself in right now is not populism, but (as Ian Leslie coined it recently) ‘simplism’: the belief that very complex problems can be solved with simple solutions. That ranges from the complex sense of disenfranchisement in English towns being solved by cutting ties to the EU and spending ‘£350m a week on the NHS’, to the brain-scrambling problem of the Irish border being solved by ‘technological’ magic.
In the 2005 Tory leadership race, David Davis and David Cameron often stole each other’s policies and in 2019 Johnson and Hunt may well end up doing the same. They both certainly think that technology can soon sort the Irish issue (Hunt even said recently the tech was nearly ready), despite all evidence to the contrary.
When Johnson was interviewed by a junior journalist Elijah Maxwell this weekend, he was asked how he’d tackle seagulls plaguing the school. Johnson’s reply was characteristic, as his brain scrambled for an answer. In the end he went for a fleet of hi-tech drones that would mimic hawks’ deterrent shrieks. Stopping seagulls is far from simple and requires a mix of cutting food waste, and real hawks, but he went for the eye-catching (and untested and expensive) option.
Yes, it was a half-joke, but as with other expensive Johnson follies (his unused cable car and his over-heated buses), it was a telling glimpse of how he’d operate in government (he cut fire stations too in London to save cash). The fact is that lots of Tories watching that Elijah interview loved it, not least as Johnson showed a real human touch with a question that would have left Theresa May in full robot mode, complete with a sensible but socially awkward and boring answer. And don’t forget Elijah’s response: ‘that’s amazing!’
3. HOW SOON IS NOW?
The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meets tonight and Lords leader Angela Smith is due to address the troops. The vexed issue of Chris Williamson is sure to be raised, even though he had the whip withdrawn again on Friday pending a further hearing by the National Executive Committee’s Disputes Panel next week.
The simmering disquiet over the Williamson affair is fuelled in part by the sudden re-selection timetable imposed by the party MPs, and in part of course by the continued frustration with Corbyn for not agreeing a clearer line on a second Brexit referendum. One irony of all this is that Corbyn has simply adopting a Blair-style compromise between different wings of the PLP, party and trade unions.
Len McCluskey on Marr urged MPs not to ‘panic’ (he said that several times, leading many to think he was panicking himself) about Brexit policy. The Unite leader hinted the whole thing should be put off until the party conference due ‘in less than 12 weeks’. But John McDonnell told Sky: “We need to move now.” But, as the Smiths once asked, how soon is ‘now’? I suspect a ‘referendum on any deal’ will get approved by Corbyn this month, but ‘referendum and remain’ may have to wait until conference.
As for the Times story this weekend which included gossip from civil servants who felt Corbyn was too ‘frail’ to take over as PM, you can bet his supporters will keep on ridiculing that claim. There was outrage across the political spectrum at that gossip, not least for the damage it does to Whitehall’s reputation for impartiality. Still, one Labour MP suggests to me that Corbyn could proactively kill the story: just as he unilaterally published his tax return (like US presidential contenders), could he unilaterally publish a recent medical?
Buried underneath the focus on the gossip about Corbyn’s health, the Times had a much more important story: the claims of bullying within the leader’s office. And there was a really telling quote from chief of staff Karie Murphy on Brexit to the Labour leader on the issue of a second referendum: “We’re not doing that, we are not selling out our class.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch new White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham shoulder barge North Korean security amid chaotic scenes as the US media ‘pool’ try to get access to the Trump/Kim meeting.
4. UMBRELLA ORGANISATION
Protestors marking Hong Kong’s 22nd anniversary of its handover to China have ramped up their direct action. Wearing hard hats and brandishing the umbrellas that symbolised the democracy movement, they tried to smash into Hong Kong’s legislature ahead of what looks like it will be a huge march later today. The protestors don’t just want the extradition plan to be suspended, they want it dropped. Add in worries over a wider loss of freedoms, and rising housing costs, and it looks like chief executive Carrie Lam has some huge calls to make on policy and policing today.
5. COMMONS CRIME
SkyNews has an excellent Freedom of Information request story today, showing that crimes reported in parliament have soared by nearly 50% in the last two years, with offences including assault, robbery, blackmail and drug possession. They included a sharp rise in threatening letters being received amid fears MPs are being increasingly targeted due to their beliefs on Brexit.
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