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For Fawkes’ sake
It’s been a full week now since MPs voted for this winter general election. Initially, many Conservatives were looking forward to the symbolism of a Guy Fawkes’ night dissolution, the final end of the ‘Remainer parliament’ that they believe has blocked the will of the people.
But after several days of being on the defensive on the NHS, the Tories’ planned Bonfire Night celebration is being replaced by a sense of unease about early campaign weakness and self-inflicted wounds.
On Tuesday, the Conservatives suffered a series of setbacks: civil servants stopped Treasury resources from being used for an attack job on Labour’s spending plans; a rape victim called for the resignation of the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns; Tory spinners were caught doctoring a video of Keir Starmer; Justine Greening said she would find it ‘hard’ to vote Conservative; and Jacob-Rees Moggsparked a huge row over his remarks about the Grenfell tower disaster. That was all in the space of a few hours.
For a Downing Street that is obsessed about what leads the early evening news bulletins, the bad news was that Rees-Mogg was the biggest story in town. The chummy way that the cabinet minister had talked to LBC’s Nick Ferrari - “I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building” - reeked of a politician who felt he was smarter than the people condemned to live in a firetrap.
The remarks took off because they appeared to lay bare the very worst kind of patrician, out of touch, emotionally tone deaf politics that Labour has long claimed sums up this Tory government. It was as if Rees-Mogg was drawing a cartoon of himself, colouring it in and parading it on prime time TV. Even some Tory critics are muttering that if he were an honourable gentleman by nature rather than by title, Rees-Mogg would have resigned his post by now.
Fellow Brexiteer Andrew Bridgenhelped the party live down to expectations, by suggesting to Radio 4 that “we want very clever people running the country” and that Rees-Mogg was a man with the natural authority to challenge those who gave the fateful ‘stay put’ advice on that dreadful night in the summer of 2017.
The irony of this is that Boris Johnson himself had given a pitch-perfect response to the Grenfell inquiry report just six days ago. His tone and seriousness, and desire to see justice for the dead and bereaved, was well received across the Commons. No wonder No.10 was dismayed by the Commons leader’s remarks and no wonder he tried to issue an apology.
Jeremy Corbyn was naturally quick to pounce but the bigger picture for him was this was yet another day with the Tories on the back foot. Labour had already dominated the headlines with its NHS ‘privatisation’ warnings in recent days and thinks its effort to depict the prime minister as some kind of Boris Trumpson is cutting through (party activists today again chanted their slogan ‘Not For Sale!’).
Last week, Donald Trump did Corbyn a huge favour by declaring he would take Britain to some ‘bad place’. At her party’s launch, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson also seemed to gift him another early Christmas present through her own attack line. In stating she would “categorically” rule out Lib Dem votes putting Corbyn into No.10, she may have sent a message to Labour Remainers that voting for her party risks killing off the second Brexit referendum that only a Labour government can deliver.
Swinson’s overreach was in sharp contrast to Nicola Sturgeon’s very careful words on whether she would allow Corbyn to form a government. Sturgeon is hardly keen to depict the SNP as puppets of Labour, yet she sees its leader as the only route to the bigger prize of her own second independence referendum. Asked about a confidence-and-supply deal, she told SkyNews “we will see what the circumstances are...let’s see what the arithmetic is”. Canny as ever, she kept her options open, rather than closing them down.
Corbyn today tried to get Brexit out of the way early in this campaign, using it mainly as leverage into his NHS messages on Trump and ‘privatisation’. Still, Nigel Farage’s presence on the stump was a reminder to all parties that this issue won’t easily go away (the TV footage of him in boxing gloves is worth a thousand words).
Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, will probably be hidden away in a lead box in Tory campaigns HQ for the rest of the election campaign. That won’t stop Labour from using that infamous photo of him prostrate on the Commons benches as part of its overall attack on what it sees as a privileged, ‘extremist’ government. One can imagine the tagline: ‘the Tories are literally lying in parliament’.
The PM won’t want to remember, remember this 5th of November. And Johnson’s big gamble in calling this election without Brexit being first delivered is certainly looking even riskier one week after MPs voted for it. On Wednesday, he will hope to use the first day of the election proper to finally get on the front foot. He also has five long weeks to prove that he is the great campaigner his party believes he is. But he can’t afford more days like today.
Quote Of The Day
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Dominic Raab hits back at Emily Thornberry’s questions about Dominic Cummings’ security status and his past working in Russia
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Philip Hammond announced he would not be standing at the general election, saying he was ‘saddened’ that the Tories had stripped him of the party whip. He vowed to spend his life outside parliament “widening” the Conservative Party’s membership. His departure brings to 67 the number of MPs retiring.
Another whipless Tory, David Gauke, hit out after No.10 breached its ‘clear promise’ that MPs would get a vote on any new move to let the UK quit the EU without a trade deal.
Intelligence and Security Committee chairman Dominic Grieve lambasted Downing Street for ‘bogus’ claims that more cross departmental consultation was needed before publication of its report on Russia. Government sources insisted officials had yet to clear the report for the PM’s final decision.
A No.10 spokesman hit out at fresh ‘false’ claims that the PM was set to abandon his marginal Uxbridge constituency and run instead in the safe seat of Rutland and Melton.
Tory minister the Earl of Courtown revealed that one million coins were minted in October to mark the UK’s exit from the European Union. They will now be recycled and the value from the materials will be recouped by the Exchequer. “The cost of minting these coins is commercially sensitive” he said.
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