The five things you need to know about politics today

Rory Stewart joked last night that he was so short that Danny deVito should play him in any movie of his life story, but few can doubt that his stature has grown in recent weeks. For so long mocked and underestimated by his rivals for the Tory leadership, he certainly has a few of the established contenders worried.

Around 6pm tonight, we will find out whether the media momentum he’s built up is in any way matched by an advance in the only audience that matters right now: fellow Tory MPs. If he can somehow get over the 33-MP threshold and prove more popular than Sajid Javid, there’s the mouthwatering prospect of him squaring up against Boris Johnson two hours later in the BBC debate.

And for someone who is seen as self-evidently quirky and out of touch with Tory members (the latest YouGov poll confirms only 31% of them think he’d be a good PM), what was really notable about yesterday in Westminster was just what lengths his rivals now go to in trying to put him off his stride. During the 1922 hustings, a Johnson supporter suggested his ‘blue on blue’ attack style would lead to more disunity.

Gove supporters George Eustice and Nicky Morgan deployed a similar tactic after the hustings. Morgan said: “Rory had a go at Dominic last night, the theory would be that that might happen were it to be Rory and Boris in the final two. In there [the Boothroyd Room], MPs are very conscious that this could be a process of seeing Conservatives arguing amongst each other.” In the Times, Gove himself warns that a Johnson-Stewart run-off would “polarise our party”, adding Stewart doesn’t “really believe in Brexit”. Similar mutterings came from the Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid camps (Javid on Today echoed the line that Stewart was a non-believer). The little guy sounds like he’s unnerving the ‘big’ guys.

There are all sorts of machinations going on, with swirling speculation that Brexiteers in the Johnson camp will ‘lend’ votes to Raab to help him get into the final two, or even to Jeremy Hunt (as he’s a more predictable opponent to beat). That’s a very dangerous game indeed but another measure of the shockwaves Stewart is sending through the race. Several payroll vote May loyalists are tempted to follow David Lidington and David Gauke (for whom they have huge respect) and lend votes to the international development secretary.

Perhaps the most bizarre attack line on Stewart is the suggestion that his alleged membership of MI6 (he denied it at our Lobby hustings) would somehow make him less electable. Especially when you remember Johnson’s blunders over alleged spying secured the incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. If we do get Johnson v Stewart, it could also turn into Austin Powers v James Bond. This morning, on the Today programme, Stewart said the law prevented any former member of the intelligence services from admitting their previous employment. Never before has a ‘No’ to a question (‘were you in MI6?’) sounded precisely like a ‘Yes’.

Even those close to Jeremy Hunt think he will add just two maybe three votes tonight to his previous total. That could keep him in second place, but would also come close to looking like his campaign really is becalmed as others build momentum. Hunt had a bad day at the Lobby hustings yesterday as fellow ‘moderates’ flinched at his support for Donald Trump, with Amber Rudd and Sayeeda Warsi needed to put out the message that he had been misunderstood. Gove backer Nicky Morgan said of Hunt’s claim that we should learn from Trump’s communication style: “I think there are probably other world leaders we could learn from first.”

There was a strong rumour last night that Javid had accepted he just lacked the numbers to get the 33 minimum, not least as he cancelled a conference call among supporters due to ‘urgent Home Office business’. The idea that he was set to pull out and endorse Johnson was described diplomatically as ‘bollocks’ by one ally. On Today, Stewart this morning notably praised Jeremy Corbyn for his integrity and his own leadership campaign, admitting he felt ‘invigorated’ by meeting people on the street and in rallies. He said he had no problem with being described as the ‘stop Boris’ candidate. You can just tell that he’s itching to get further momentum from a prime time showdown with Johnson.

Whoever makes it through to the BBC debate tonight, Johnson may finally be tackled on just what his Brexit policy is. Stewart (who yesterday said 100 Tory MPs would oppose no-deal) aruges that he’s the only one honest enough to say some form of May’s Brexit deal will have to pass - and that polls of the wider public show he can win non-Tory votes. Raab will try to pin down Johnson’s wriggle room on no-deal. The Guardian highlights claims Boris has been giving mixed messages on everything from Brexit to HS2 (and even Heathrow?).

Gove yesterday made his own pitch for moderate votes, by ramming home his view that Parliament would and should have a veto over a no-deal Brexit. “If we are going to leave without a deal, you need to persuade parliament that is the right course of action,” he told the Lobby hustings. “It would be a mistake for any prime minister to say they were doing something as momentous - and potentially as liberating - as leaving the EU without parliament in our parliamentary democracy having agreed that the prime minister is doing the right thing.” That certainly caught the ear of several Brexiteers who want a no-deal legal default to be pursued.

The real difficulty for Johnson is just what he’s been telling the hardcore Brexiteers in the European Research Group. After the first ballot, John Redwood told me last week that he had voted for Boris because he had told him personally May’s deal was ‘dead’. And ominously, Steve Baker yesterday tweeted “too many leadership candidates think the backstop is the only problem with the withdrawal agreement”. Just how hardline will Johnson be tonight? And how specific? He may surprise everyone by being deliberately dull and safe, while they all try to gang up on him. Yet if things look rocky, he could try the Johnson jedi move.

Away from the Tory infighting, Labour yesterday had its own wrangles on Brexit policy. Tom Watson’s big speech (curiously with no media invited to his Q&A) didn’t so much push the envelope as rip it up: Labour had to have a second referendum and had to campaign to Remain. Party chair Ian Lavery tweeted his pithy response: “Ignoring the 17.4m leave voters isn’t politically smart nor indeed particularly democratic. Is it?”

But in a later BBC interview, Watson went further, warning Labour would pay a “very heavy electoral price” if it did not adopt a “clear position whether it’s for Leave or Remain”. And there was this significant line: “I’m never going to leave the Labour Party. I mean sometimes I wonder whether the Labour Party is leaving me.” It was a reminder that his Future Britain Group in the party could act as a powerful force in the PLP, not least now that ChangeUK has imploded and offers no credible alternative for MPs unhappy with Corbyn’s direction.

In fact, Corbyn’s own position on a second referendum is often misrepresented. He’s neither a Lavery refusenik nor a Watsonian enthusiast. I’m told he’s determined to pursue his strategy of ‘evolving’ the policy to give more clarity. Yesterday he met small groups of pro-Remain MPs, today he’s meeting groups of MPs from Leave areas. There was such a demand that he’s postponed the planned special shadow cabinet on Brexit from today to tomorrow.

Many senior insiders caution that even tomorrow’s meeting won’t be some kind of ‘big bang’ moment, and there certainly won’t be a vote. The direction of travel is clear however and close allies point out that Corbyn has already made his most important announcement in Dublin after the Euro election disaster: the deadlock can now be broken only through an election or a public vote on any deal agreed by parliament. Some referendum-sceptics in shadow cabinet think that latter pledge is a mistake but think it’s academic as there will never be the numbers to deliver on it.

Watch Rory Stewart come face to face with a man angry at his Tory government’s failure to help young people. They later hugged.

The business of the Commons featured a literal life and death issue yesterday as Labour’s Jon Ashworth tackled Matt Hancock about the five deaths in NHS hospitals linked to a listeria outbreak. The five had died after eating sandwiches supplied by Staffordshire-based company The Good Food Chain. And Public Health England revealed more details about the deaths including where the five fatalities were treated, and which other hospitals had been supplied with the sandwiches. The Daily Mail, rightly, says many more answers are needed.

The hot news from the US overnight (aside from Trump sending 1,000 troops to counter the threat of Iran) is that the president’s re-election campaign has ousted several pollsters after leaks of internal data showing Joe Biden leading in key states if he became the Democrat candidate for 2020. Trump will formally launch his re-election campaign in Florida tonight. Leaked polls show he trails in Florida by seven points to Biden, the former vice-president.

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