The five things you need to know about politics today

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt head to Belfast today for the latest Tory hustings and it will be interesting to see just how their no-deal Brexit plans go down. There are just 500 Conservative members in Northern Ireland, making this the equivalent in electoral terms of the two leadership contenders devoting an entire hustings to an individual local association in the Home Counties. But given how huge the Irish border question is, let’s see if any Northern Irish Tories drill down beyond the ‘technological’ mantras offered so far.

Hunt’s shift to a hardline stance on no-deal yesterday smacked of the desperation of a man who knows the ballot papers go out this Friday. His new tight deadline of getting a deal by end of August, submitting it to parliament by early September, would also involve cancelling all summer leave for the civil service. Unsurprisingly, that’s gone down like a lead balloon among staff, especially as MPs (the real blockage in this whole process) will themselves be away from Westminster for six weeks as usual.

Johnson avoided a SkyNews head-to-head with Hunt last night but his press team did go in hard on their rival. They said the foreign secretary’s flip-flopping on the October 31 deadline meant he had ‘shown he was not serious about a no-deal Brexit’ and was ‘failing to provide the certainty that our businesses deserve’. The testiness suggests that Hunt’s direct attacks on Johnson’s ‘cowardice’ could result in a Cabinet demotion once this is all over. Hunt’s repeated jibes at his rival’s ‘character’ suggest it may be difficult to keep him at the Foreign Office. A switch to Leader of the House (remember Andrea Leadsom, ‘second place’ to May in 2016, ended up there) is one option being floated among some of Johnson’s most loyal MPs.

Speaking of which, the Telegraph reports on what looks very much like a ‘Revenge Reshuffle’ plan that would see a prime minister Johnson abolishing and merging a raft of Whitehall departments. Most of the departments targeted - Work and Pensions, Justice, Culture, Business and International Trade - all just happen to be run by ministers who have refused to back Johnson for leader. To be fair, these plans sound like they’re being pushed by ‘allies’ such as Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel, but let’s see if they’re disowned.

Amber Rudd last night tweeted how ‘unworkable’ (aka bonkers) it would be to scrap the DWP. But Boris backer Damian Green was deliciously incredulous too on Newsnight. “It seems quite an extraordinary proposition, many of those examples… Did you say Justice as well? You can always play with government departments but I think saying that you won’t have a government minister in Cabinet responsible for the colossal pension budget would seem strange.” Watch the clip.

One man who certainly won’t be in government at the end of this month is Philip Hammond. And last night’s BBC interview included his withering assessment of both Johnson and Hunt’s fantasy figures on public spending. The Chancellor suggested neither man was being ‘honest’, that they were blowing the Tory brand for fiscal responsibility and that they would end up in a no-deal either jacking up borrowing, increasing taxes or prolonging austerity. Treasury Question time should be a peach today.

To cap it all, William Hague has warned that serious mistakes on Brexit “could be terminal for the world’s most enduring political force” aka the Conservative party. Or, as one woman in a garden centre told Johnson yesterday: ‘good luck with your preposterous ideas’. How very British to heckle a future PM among the cut-price begonias.

Given all the chatter about no-deal from both candidates, some MPs were dismayed yesterday that John Bercow refused to play ball with a radical parliamentary plan to block that outcome. The Speaker refused to choose the amendment from Dominic Grieve and Margaret Beckett that sought to use tonight’s ‘Estimates’ vote to effective shutdown government spending in the event of a no-deal.

In the end, many Labour MPs were rather relieved at Bercow’s decision, believing the plan was doomed to fail and would have made anti-Brexit MPs look like they were sabotaging things like overseas aid and pension payments. Bercow is not dumb either and knows he in the process built up some capital to reassure his critics that he won’t always tear up precedent for the hell of it. Some MPs say the estimates plan was as half-baked and premature as Oliver Letwin’s move to side with Labour recently, and smacked of Nick Boles’ plan to let the Liaison Committee take control of Brexit (without first informing the Liaison Committee).

However, the bigger battle looms later this year. Hilary Benn recently told me that it was only in October, when the Commons could ‘see the whites of their eyes’ of a no-deal exit, that MPs would probably act. He has backed the idea of an SO24 debate route, where the Speaker allows an emergency motion to be amended, to give MPs a veto. Last night, Newsnight’s Nick Watt revealed the plan was to use the narrow window between the Commons’ return from conference recess to Halloween. That’s going to be a hell of a three and a half weeks (October 7 to 31).

Jeremy Corbyn has this morning published his letter to Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill urging a ‘speedy and thorough investigation’ into anonymous civil servants briefing the Times at the weekend that he was physically and mentally unfit to be PM. Last night, Corbyn tweeted: “The rich and powerful are so worried about a Labour government redistributing wealth and power that they’re stepping up their attacks on me, those close to me, my staff and our movement.”

What’s slightly odd is that Corbyn has not done a full interview on any of this, (last night he tweeted a link to a clip he had done last week). But his team believe that the widespread outrage at the ‘smear’ will feed into the narrative that his radical agenda is so popular that it is scaring ‘The Establishment’. Many in the inner circle remember when the Sun reported claims that Corbyn was a Communist spy, and how that story prompted a backlash in his favour. Shadow minister Laura Pidcock told Today that Corbyn was “much fitter than me and I’m 31”, adding some in Whitehall were “immensely threatened by our electoral prospects”.

Of course it would be truly amazing if Sedwill managed to actually find out who briefed the Times. Labour know that too, but this is more about sending a strong message to Whitehall and to the wider world. It also manages to handily drown out issues like a second Brexit referendum and anti-semitism (George Howarth at the PLP last night read out a statement on why he felt the Chris Williamson decision proved the need for a more independent process).

Watch British actor Jason Statham do the bottle top challenge. Yeah, I’ve no idea if it’s real or fake, folks, but it looks kinda cool.

Treasury minister John Glen told Today’s business section (yeah someone has to get up early) that the government was ready to ‘mandate’ City firms to publish information about their fossil fuel investments and other climate change impacts. The green finance strategy published today may be among the final twitches of the dying corpse of May-ism, but it could have long-term impact. Just as her gender pay gap transparency has done.

Speaking of transparency, the BBC publishes its list of highest paid on screen ‘talent’ today. And for the first time three of the top ten are women. Strictly Come Dancing co-presenter Claudia Winkleman, Radio 2 Breakfast hosts Zoe Ball and Vanessa Feltz are the ones in the money. Perhaps more important is a new Fawcett Society report showing that the 2019 local elections did almost nothing to boost the gender balance between male and female councillors.

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