The five things you need to know about politics today

Tory austerity may or may not be ending sometime soon, but today the party embarks on fresh round of brutal cuts - this time of its own leadership candidates. The culling process means that we could end up with just six, possibly seven, contenders left by lunchtime. The new rules, designed to speed up the contest, mandate that those who can’t muster 17 votes must drop out.

Few expect Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey or Mark Harper to make the cut. Rory Stewart thinks he may squeak it with 20 votes, a triumph that would allow him to catapult into the TV debates in the next few days. He’s vowed not to serve under Boris Johnson, but I wonder if he’ll resist the call of ‘Queen and country’. After Johnson’s message that he wasn’t ‘aiming’ for no-deal, could he stay on in the Cabinet and then walk out in a blaze of glory if the new PM does indeed go for the nuclear option? Either way, many think Stewart is perfectly placed for another run at the leadership next time.

For now, it’s all about raw numbers. This is a secret ballot and with a still sizeable chunk of undeclared MPs, it will be fascinating to see how Johnson, Hunt, Gove, Raab, Javid and Hancock fare. Each camp will be desperate to mop up supporters from those who fail to clear the first ballot hurdle. Despite the herd mentality, MPs are rugged individualists at times and it’s not always obvious where they will switch loyalties. Still, many expect Johnson and Raab to be boosted by McVey and Leadsom’s numbers, while Harper’s will head towards Hunt, Javid or Hancock.

Everyone will be looking to see whether Michael Gove’s numbers have hit a ceiling. If so, could Javid or Hancock build up momentum to overtake him and Raab? Should Stewart drop out, Hancock could leapfrog Javid. It may all be academic, if Johnson comes close to the magic 105 needed to guarantee a place in the last two next week. With his obvious support out among members, will it be all over bar the shouting as early as today?

Boris Johnson got through his big day yesterday without imploding on the launchpad as he did so spectacularly three long years ago. Yet his critics are already pointing out that even a few minutes of scrutiny exposed his slipperiness on everything from a Brexit no-deal to his drug history to his past remarks about ‘letterbox’ Muslim women or ‘bumboys’.

I’ve written an in-depth piece on how Johnson fared not just at his launch event and the 1922 Committee hustings, but also more widely on how he got his act together (in every sense) in recent weeks. Most telling of all was how neither the launch nor the ’22 distracted him from the real business that has shaped this entire leadership race - those one-on-one meetings with wavering backbenchers up in his fourth floor office in Portcullis House. Boris met more yesterday, including some who had been in to see him before and had been unconvinced. It was revealing that they went back at all.

It was obvious Johnson was deliberately more serious and sober yesterday. The Q&A was more freewheeling. Yet given that he is a consummate actor who has spent years crafting the ‘bumbling Boris’ persona since his student days, where does the artifice begin and end? Was he simply acting at being serious? Is he always acting at being dishevelled? The fact that his family call him ‘Al’ (Alexander is his first name, not Boris) suggests few know who the real Boris Johnson is.

Javid had a jibe that Johnson is ‘yesterday’s news’. But Boris backers think that he’s very much the leader they need right here, right now, the only man who can save the party from what he told MPs yesterday was the ‘near extinction event’ of a Farage and Corbyn carve-up. Some waverers want a leader for tomorrow, someone who can win in 2022 and 2027. However, the real undercurrent of Johnson’s pitch is that his time has finally arrived - and that he’s the one to call and win a snap election in 2019 to end the Brexit deadlock for good.

Labour’s failure to block a no-deal exit in the big Commons vote yesterday - by 11 votes - was a serious blow to those MPs who fear a horrific, chaotic Halloween-style Brexit this autumn. And what will worry Labour MPs most is that it was their own Leavers who dug in, easily outnumbering the Tory Remainer rebels.

Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin and other ‘grandees’ are now split on whether it’s too late to stop the excesses of a Boris-led Tory party. One senior figure confided to me yesterday that they thought staging this vote during the Conservative leadership contest was always doomed. It’s possible the only thing MPs could agree to stop is a forced prorogation.

This morning, Letwin told Today that he was resigned to the worst, saying he couldn’t think of what Parliamentary device could now save the day. “You need to have an opportunity that is legitimate in terms of Parliamentary procedure and I don’t know of one any more.” As for voting down the government in a confidence vote, I note he didn’t rule it out: “That’s not something any of us want to do…It’s not something I’ve been thinking about.”

Yesterday, Letwin warned of the timebomb of no-deal: “If we do not put the fuse out now, we will not be able to disassemble the bomb in September or October.” But it’s those Labour Leave MPs (and plenty more abstained as well as voted against their three-line whip) who seem to have the trigger in their hands. It may take a mass movement by ‘moderate’ Tory MPs to stop the bomb going off.

Watch Esther McVey struggle on LBC with the concept of ‘abroad’.

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s internal party troubles rumble on. HuffPost managed to track down Alistair Darling yesterday the former Chancellor said what many of MPs are privately thinking but too scare to say publicly. “It’s never been clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a Brexiteer. Look at his track record since 1974..I think what he wants to see is a Tory Brexit so therefore if things go wrong it will be their fault.”

Donald Trump has long been seen by his critics as a useful idiot of the Kremlin, while his admirers say it’s ludicrous to suggest he’s some kind of agent of a foreign power. But last night the US president couldn’t help sparking more outrage as he told ABC News that he wouldn’t turn down dirt on a Democratic opponent if it was offered by another country (he cited Norway). Oh, and he wouldn’t necessarily tell the FBI. Was he joking? Who knows?

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