1. TRUMP CARD
The main news story out of the ITV debate was that Boris Johnson refused (six times) to give his backing to Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s Washington ambassador who has been frozen out by Donald Trump. Crucially, Johnson wouldn’t repeat Jeremy Hunt’s guarantee that Darroch would remain in post until his planned retirement in January.
Theresa May made Darroch the first item on the agenda at her Cabinet meeting yesterday, telling ministers that it was “hugely important that ambassadors are able to provide honest, unvarnished assessments of the politics in their country”. The PM’s spokesman added that Darroch “continues to carry out his duties”.
But the practical difficulties of having an ambassador blackballed by the President are real. Blogging for HuffPost UK, former Washington ambassador Peter Jay says the leak of Darroch’s telegrams was a “dirty manoeuvre by an anonymous scumbag to make the current ambassador’s position nearly untenable”.
Just how untenable is becoming clear. Darroch had already voluntarily pulled out of the meeting between Ivanka Trump and Liam Fox. Things worsened overnight when US trade secretary Wilbur Ross (who had dinner with the ambassador only a few days ago) cancelled a long-plannned meeting with Fox. A diary clash was cited but the Washington Examiner quotes Trump allies saying it was because Darroch had been due to attend.
Despite all that, Johnson made it his mission last night to send a strong message of support to Trump (while insisting “I and I alone” will decide who gets ambassador jobs). His proxy Matt Hancock refused to say repeatedly this morning what Darroch’s future would be.
This may seem baffling to many, especially given polling showing that many British voters of all political persuasions loathe Trump. But it underlines that Johnson’s main strategic priority is Brexit, including his hope to get a big UK-US trade deal from Trump once we quit the EU. The need to secure that deal means he is ready to put ‘America First’ (to coin a phrase) in Britain’s new global future.
After nine years of the Tories being in office, Johnson also knows that Brexit is his trump card in presenting himself as the change candidate. He got one of his loudest applause lines when he said we could all focus on public service investment once Brexit was delivered. No wonder he talked of the ‘forthcoming election’ last night.
2. SUCKER PUNCH
That strategic priority was on display throughout the ITV debate (the big winner of which was of course Julie Etchingham). Yes, Hunt may have won on points, saying all the right things about needing detail not bluster, but Johnson showed he was the one capable of delivering a knockout punch. He kept using his big right hook of Brexit-delivered-by-Halloween and the audience kept on liking it. “Peddling optimism” could work for Johnson, especially if he delivers Brexit (another poll yesterday suggested a ‘Boris bounce’ would give him an eight point lead if he did so).
Johnson’s combination of showman’s flourishes and bare-knuckle street fighting is something his opponents had better get used to. Floating like a butterfly (away from detailed policy), yet stinging like a bee (at his critics), he will try to be the Muhammad Ali of British politics. His allies think that duck-and-dive-and-punch approach will ensure he defeats both a managerial, bloodless opponent like Hunt and a committed ideologue like Corbyn. Forthcoming PMQs between Johnson and Corbyn may turn into fact-free slugfests tailored for instant online viral clips for each of their rival tribes.
As for today’s PMQs, even if Theresa May directly attacked Johnson for not backing Darroch (she won’t), it wouldn’t matter much to the outcome of the leadership race. Trump is past caring and last night his adviser Kellyanne Conway - the woman infamous for ‘alternative facts’ - even suggested May had already left No.10. “I think Theresa May’s last day was basically as we were leaving the UK last month,” she said (scroll through ITV News at Ten, 17mins 10secs).
3. JUDGE DREAD
Johnson last night made plain that he would prepare for a no-deal Brexit (despite having said recently the chances were a ‘million-to-one’), claiming the costs of such a scenario were “vanishingly inexpensive”. And he jibed Hunt with this line: “Parliament, contrary to what my opponent has said, just resisted the temptation to vote down no-deal” (note Johnson never called him ‘Jeremy’, while Hunt fell into the trap of referring to him as ‘Boris’).
In June, a joint Oliver Letwin-Labour attempt to block no-deal was defeated by 11 votes (after eight Labour MPs voted with the government and 13 abstained). Last night, even Dominic Grieve’s weakest attempt to block a no-deal prorogation of parliament squeaked home by just one vote, and that was because of a whipping blunder. Remember Yvette Cooper’s no-deal bill won by a single vote too earlier this year. Even when it comes to October, it’s hard not to see Johnson simply refusing to comply with any legal move that squeaks home, and/or then calling a snap election.
This morning, Sir John Major has announced yet another gambit aimed at trying to block a no-deal prorogation, telling the Today programme he would seek a judicial review. But to me that just highlighted how increasingly desperate Johnson’s opponents now are. I know Gina Miller’s Article 50 case will be cited as proof of judicial intervention on Brexit, but it’s very difficult to imagine any court wanting to get entangled in such vexed constitutional matters as prorogation.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Jeremy Corbyn do some strange kung fu during his inteview with John Pienaar.
4. CIRCLE OF HELL
One shadow cabinet minister yesterday confided that the danger of the huge anticipation of tonight’s Panorama on anti-semitism is that it could turn into an anti-climax. Still, many expect staff close to Corbyn to be in the firing line. On Today, Keir Starmer backed a rule change calling for automatic expulsion of anti-Semites. He aded that the party should “throw open the books” to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and must not “circle the wagons”.
With three peers quitting the whip yesterday, the words of Labour’s Lords leader Baroness Smith to last week’s PLP now sound prophetic: “We have failed to give any confidence, not just to the Jewish community, but to the public, our voters and party members that we are determined to do everything we can to root out such a cancer from our party…political will and determination from everybody in a Leadership position is absolutely essential. Or we fail.”
5. WOMEN IN WESTMINSTER
There was a big parliamentary victory to extend abortion rights (and same-sex marriage) to Northern Ireland last night. Today, the Lords has a report out later that could be damning about harassment, and tomorrow the long-awaited report into the Commons is expected to be scathing.
But that’s why it’s all the more important that women who work in Westminster, especially young women, are encouraged to network and support each other. Tonight a cross-party ‘Women in Westminster’ group launches with a drinks reception in the Red Lion pub from 6.30pm, aimed at boosting access and confidence for women. Supportive men are more than welcome too.
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