1. PLAY THE WILDE ROVER
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Oscar Wilde’s famous line seemed to be Boris Johnson’s rough game plan (often the only game plan) as the Tory conference woke up to yet more headlines about the former Foreign Secretary today. Yes, there was a strong anti-BoJo backlash yesterday. But he’s still a looming presence in Birmingham, just as Brexit itself looms over this gathering like a fitful thundercloud that’s yet to break into a full-blown storm.
Party loyalists weren’t overly amused at Johnson’s weekend attempts to tee-up the conference. His attack on Theresa May’s ‘deranged’ Chequers plans, her lack of ‘belief’ in Brexit, and a trademark bonkers/blueskies idea beginning with the ‘B’ of his brand (after Boris Bikes, Boris Island, Boris Buses, we now have Boris’s Brexit Bridge from Ulster to mainland Britain) sparked a fiercer counter-reaction than he’s encountered before now. There was actual conference hall applause yesterday when Digby Jones said Johnson’s ‘f*ck business’ line “showed him up for the irrelevance and offensive person he is”.
David Davis unleashed further friendly fire when he added of Boris: “Quite a lot of his ideas, I think, are good headlines but not necessarily good policies”. In case we missed it, DD added: “One of the blights of British politics is politicians having fantastic ideas, that cost a fortune and don’t do much good”. The real problem for Johnson is that he seems to have lost his lustre among the public and not just Tories. Our BMG/HuffPostUK poll shows that May’s two-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn turns into a four point deficit if Johnson were Tory leader. Lord Ashcroft’s poll had a similar finding, further undermining the Boris bandwagon claim that MPs would have to get him on a leadership ballot paper as he was their best chance of winning the next election.
Philip Hammond has never been a Boris fan but today he’s let rip in the Daily Mail, declaring the old Etonian will never be PM. The Chancellor mocked his plummy speaking voice and his lack of detail in Cabinet talks. On the Today programme, Hammond doubled down. “I don’t want to talk about Boris Johnson…I don’t want to get into the personalities”, he said, before then talking, er, about Boris Johnson’s personality. “Boris Johnson is a big picture man but this is a detailed negotiation…[this isn’t about] big sweeping statements…it requires meticulous attention”.
Johnson is seen by No.10 as supremely thin-skinned, and he will hate more than anything the ridicule rather than the anger directed at him. Sajid Javid, increasingly seen as a unity candidate post-May, Tweeted his own mockery yesterday. Ruth Davidson has been savage in her own mickey-taking too, and may have more today in her conference speech. Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was all about an obsessive narcissist seeking permanent youth (Boris is 54, folks and mystery surrounds claims that he dyes his hair). And the novel has another ominous line that an increasing number of Tories may start quoting soon as they tire of the blond bombshell: “Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.”
2. BORIS COUNTRY
Johnson does have a hardy band of supporters in Parliament and knows that he still has an X-factor pull among Leave voters that rivals like Jacob Rees-Mogg lack. Last night at a packed BrexitCentral rally, two Boris allies, Tory MPs Conor Burns and Ross Thomson, gave even more withering assessments on May’s Chequers plans. Burns came up with a neat inversion of William Hague’s line, saying “If Chequers had a slogan, it would be ‘not in Europe, but run by Europe’.” But he had what sounded like a threat too: “I say this in a spirit of friendship and affection towards our Prime Minister, Prime Minister, we don’t want to change you, we want to change the policy of Chequers.” Thomson said the plan was “an unmitigated disaster, it has humiliated us at home and in the EU and it is breaking this party apart.”
Neither sounded like men who would ever vote for the proposals. And Rees-Mogg, who does as brilliant a job as Johnson in carefully cultivating/confecting his persona, was the big draw. The hundreds of people queuing for the event reminded me of the long line of activists waiting for Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference speech as leader. Like Corbyn, Rees-Mogg’s ‘overnight success’ has been 30 years in the making and he clear thinks now is his ‘moment’. In another echo of Labour infighting, Burns even hinted Remainer MP Sarah Wollaston should be deselected and replaced by young Brexiteer Darren Grimes (to which minister Margot James pointed out there was ’no vacancy’)
Boris’s next difficulty is how he approaches his big ConservativeHome fringe on Tuesday. If it is yet more ‘I hate Chequers’ rhetoric, he may devalue his currency with sheer repetition. If he really goes for it and attacks the PM, the backlash may be as damaging as it was when Heseltine thrust his dagger against Thatcher. No.10 still sound pretty confident they can whittle down the Chequers rebel numbers. ‘But they may still get 15 MPs, and that’s enough to f*ck us,” one ally said. That’s why Downing Street has a twin-track approach of turning the screws of warning of a Corbyn government, while wooing Brexiteers by stating Chequers really is a ‘credible free trade deal’.
Which brings us to ‘Boris Country’, ie a ‘SuperCanada’ trade deal with the EU. What’s been really striking in recent days is the pushback from No.10 and the Cabinet to warn of the dangers of not just ‘no deal’ Brexit but Canada-style Brexit too. David Gauke started it at the weekend, Greg Clark told me yesterday at our WaughZoneLive fringe that Canada would harm the UK’s just-in-time manufacturing and supply chains. Hammond in the Mail derided Johnson’s Canada pitch: ‘Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you, erm, come on, we can do it Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there.‘” Contrast that with the PM’s talk of putting ‘the national interest’ first (implicitly saying it comes before party interest) and you can see why Bojo has a credibility problem. Twitter onslaughts by the likes of Northern Irish comedian Patrick Kielty ram home just why the Boris joke isn’t funny any more.
3. BACK IN THE EU-SSR
So, what about Boris’s possible rivals to succeed May? This week isn’t really a beauty parade in the way that the 2005 Tory conference was between Davis and Cameron, but some are showing a bit of leg. Sajid Javid is up tomorrow, Dominic Raab is up today (his speech has a firm line warning against any attempt to “lock us in via the back door of the EEA and Customs Union” - and a personal attack on Corbyn and anti-semitism).
Jeremy Hunt, another contender, had his own speech yesterday. And what a speech it was. Hardened Tory Eurosceptics spent years talking about the EU-SSSR, but the serving Foreign Secretary actually appeared to endorse that trope. “What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,” he told party activists in Birmingham. The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish it will grow and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.”
Those close to Hunt were surprisingly surprised that the media leapt on that line, stressing he was not saying the EU was a ‘prison’ just that it was heading that way if it didn’t change course. That kind of defence doesn’t really wash with many Brexiteers who will never forgive him for backing Remain in the 2016 referendum. We got hold of Steve Baker last night and he said: “People who were for ‘Remain’ trying to appeal to Brexiteers time and again go too far. Time and again. Saying things that are just too strident and make my toes curl”. Ouch.
What’s odd is that Hunt started off at the Foreign Office by defining himself as a contrast to the Johnson era. Working hard on the Nazanin Zagari-Radcliffe case, mending fences with his fluent Japanese and his knowledge of China’s intricate political system. One civil servant even said in the Times profile of him this weekend: “There’s a grown-up in charge again”. Yet all that effort was put at risk among the mandarinate with the comparison of Brussels to Soviet Russia. If Hunt really wants the top job, he’s going to have to be more finessed than yesterday.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch how long the queue was to hear Jacob Rees-Mogg speak last night. It really needs Benny Hill music to go with the speeded up timeframe.
4. TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Theresa May has confirmed that the Government will legislate to ban restaurants from taking a cut from waiters’ tips to avoid the impact of minimum wage hikes. Business Secretary Greg Clark hinted at the policy yesterday when he told me: “I do share the concerns that what is given to a waiter or waitress doesn’t go to to the person - even though the person leaving the tip think it has.” It’s odd that No.10 decided to grab the announcement for themselves, but it shows they want to take on the Corbyn agenda of using the power of the state to effect social justice.
Clark himself has a much wider agenda to help consumers and citizens cope with the way companies can manipulate them with artificial intelligence and data analytics. One of the most fascinating bits of our WaughZoneLive (watch it in full HERE) was him saying there had to be an ethical oversight of the AI and robotics revolution, as well as a warning to airlines, mobile phone firms and broadband companies that they can’t use the data revolution to screw customers. Clark also called for more business rate relief for the High Street, saying retailers had a social value that ought to be recognised by the Treasury. Again, it’s a new kind of Tory interventionism that seeks to combat Corbynism without junking free markets themselves.
5. CLAD TO GO
Another bit of statism on broken markets comes today with Communities Secretary James Brokenshire finally announcing that the use of combustible cladding is to be banned on all new residential buildings above 18 metres, as well as schools, care homes, student accommodation and hospitals.
The measure, resulting from a lengthy consultation following last year’s Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, is part of a new drive to reassure the public that May really can deliver on last year’s pledge to put housing at the heart of her premiership.
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