Scrutiny, it’s a marvellous thing. The more Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt engage with the media, the more we learn about their positions. Yesterday, Johnson discovered that going on the front foot could actually help his campaign to become PM, as it allows him to better define (and refine) his message to the party and the public.
And on the issue of the Halloween deadline for Brexit, the front-runner rammed home his pledge to get the UK out of the EU by October 31. Thanks to a cunning prompt from TalkRadio’s Ross Kempsell, Johnson (who often repeats interviewers’ questions, if he thinks they are friendly) declared we would exit by that date, “do or die”. By contrast, Jeremy Hunt said last night that was a ‘fake deadline’. Rory Stewart, who pointed out that ‘do or die’ is a line in The Charge of the Light Brigade, finally came out for Hunt this morning.
Unwillingly or willingly, Johnson has tied his personal reputation to that Halloween date now. Has he in the process become a prisoner of not just the date, but also the hardline Brexiteer wing of the party? That’s what several ‘moderate’ MPs who backed him in the parliamentary phase of this leadership contest now fear, and they are distinctly twitchy as they can see just what a high stakes gamble they’ve let themselves in for.
Part of that gamble is that an October 24 general election is now looking increasingly like the only way of resolving the Brexit deadlock. As I’ve said before, there seems a vanishingly slim chance that the Commons can find a way to legally compel Johnson to request an extension to Article 50 beyond October. He played hardball on this yesterday, telling TalkRadio “It would be up to the prime minister of the day. I have myself [he already assumes he’s PM] to decide under the current terms of the extension that we have, to apply for such an extension. Okay.”
That means the only option left to MPs who want to avoid no-deal is the nuclear option of a vote of no confidence. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has talked to the Commons Library and it appears that September 3 is last day that such a vote can take place - the first day back after the summer recess (the Institute for Government’s Maddy Thimont-Jack underlines the point). Some Johnson allies want him to call a snap election with a firm no-deal platform and a new YouGov poll shows the upsides and downsides to that (28% want no-deal, but 43% want to stay in the EU).
With Theresa May now expected to make Wednesday July 24th her swansong PMQs, the big call Jeremy Corbyn has to make is whether to try to then swiftly force a confidence vote before MPs go away for six weeks. That may be too soon to mobilise enough Tory Remainer support, but leaving it to September is very, very risky too. As I’m sure several Brexiteers will point out, September 3 will also be the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. The point is that maybe everyone is looking at the wrong month. Some in Labour are already pencilling in Thursday, September 26 as a possible date. Worth having in your diary folks.
The ruthless professionalism of Team Boris’s Phase 1 of the leadership race was nowhere to be seen in the first days of Phase 2. But the fact remains that just getting into the final two means they can now start leveraging their man’s years of rubber-chicken meetings and events at local Tory associations. Jeremy Hunt (who is on Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 at lunchtime) showed last night he can bantz with the best of them, but for many Tories he still lacks the X factor of his rival.
The system is designed to ensure that MPs - who see colleagues up close and are much closer to the minutiae of Brexit and policy - can weed out candidates whose ideas and character make them unfit for office. But that ship has sailed. Will rank and file Tory members really care if Johnson hasn’t got a credible, detailed plan on Brexit? Will they care that he shifts position on tax policy, or hints at a “GATT-style deal” (as opposed to a GATT deal) with the EU? Will they care that (as we reveal today) 74% of academics think he won’t get a new Brexit deal sorted by October 31? Or will they just look at the broadbrush picture that Johnson paints in bold colours?
It may all come down to whether the 160,000 party members want to take a risk on another snap election, or fear an election so much that they prefer Hunt’s gradualist approach. One can imagine many local members being soothed by Johnson’s line yesterday on the stump in Dominic Raab’s constituency. When a female supporter said to him “just don’t have any more rows [with your girlfriend]”, he replied: “No more rows. No, no, no. All quiet, all quiet.”
Yet the shape of Johnson’s top team for Phase 2 and beyond (actually being in government) is causing tensions. Iain Duncan Smith has been appointed campaign manager, a strong signal to the European Research Group that he means business. But Mark Fullbrook, a partner of Lynton Crosby’s, seems to be in charge of ‘transition’ to No.10, with Liz Truss given the role of ‘policy director’. The Times reveals that Matt Hancock, Oliver Dowden and Eddie Lister, Johnson’s former chief aide at City Hall, are all part of the transition team too.
Some of those close to him want a ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ strategy (the famous West Wing episode where he is allowed to speak his mind) Keeping Johnson away from the media, with a tightly controlled message, worked in Phase 1. But showing the real Johnson (even including his mad cardboard bus-painting hobbies) could prove more productive in Phase 2. The difficulty is that there are two Boris Johnsons: the divisive, hard Brexiteer and the unifying, liberal Mayor of London. And often it seems even he is unsure which one he is.
Jeremy Corbyn’s own troubles on Brexit continue. At yesterday’s shadow cabinet meeting, frustration boiled over as the Labour leader announced he wanted more time to consult trade union leaders on calls to shift to a second referendum on ‘any’ Brexit deal.
Now, it’s worth saying that shadow cabinets very rarely leak. All members are usually pretty disciplined about that, but with this one a special Brexit meeting it seems that many have had enough. I’ve done a full write up HERE, and what struck many present was just how forceful John McDonnell was.
The shadow chancellor, who had been led to believe that there would be a clear decision at the meeting and had gone public about ‘white smoke’ being likely, couldn’t hide his irritation. He said the current lack of clarity was ‘like a slow-moving car crash’. Later he said he was definitely ‘arguing the case’ for a stronger policy, not just for a referendum but for a campaign to Remain.
Keir Starmer deployed a new phrase that you can expect will be repeated in coming days too. He told colleagues ‘we can’t have half a policy’, pointing out that backing a referendum was one half but the other was exactly how the party would campaign in such a referendum - and Remain was the only credible stance. Corbyn however is acutely aware that no union has yet called for ‘Remain’, and is focusing on the battle to get them to back a referendum on ‘any’ deal.
What really caused the delay from Corbyn was Monday’s meeting of trade union leaders. Unite’s Len McCluskey couldn’t make it but assistant general secretary Howard Beckett made plain his union was dead against any referendum on anything other than a Labour Brexit deal - and was dead against making Labour ‘the party of Remain’. And I’m told the reason for this is that Unite members in workplaces are increasingly polarised between Leave voters who now want no-deal and others who want to revoke Article 50.
The delay - I’m told it could be until mid-July before we get a new decision - is causing harm among party members. The bigger damage is that Corbyn is seen not as a man trying to build consensus, but as a leader whose heart really isn’t in a new referendum at all. When he eventually comes out and backs one, it may buy off some party members. But for millions of voters, they may just never trust him, and may never believe him even if he says he wants the UK to remain. They could well stick with the Lib Dems to whom they loaned their votes in the Euros. And that’s why McDonnell is so worried.
McDonnell lost the battle for Corbyn’s ear yesterday, not least due to the tight knit advisers like Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy who have been urging caution on a referendum. NEC member and veteran MP Margaret Beckett told Today: “I’m beginning to think that some of them do actually want Britain to leave the EU no matter what. They don’t give a toss about what the British people now want or what Labour members think is in the country’s interests.”
Watch Newsnight’s Emma Barnett suggest to Boris Johnson ally Andrew Mitchell that the October 31 deadline was just ‘willy waving’. Mitchell kept a straight face, but allowed a flicker of a smile later.
In the Commons yesterday, Labour’s Angela Eagle became visibly emotional as she implored MPs yesterday to take action over the Birmingham LGBTQ+ schools protest. It was an uneasy moment for Labour, not least as the debate was triggered by fellow MP Roger Godsiff.
The Department for Work and Pensions is facing a backlash after a Universal Credit claimant appeared to be left with a paltry £5.82 for the month after being docked more than £300 in sanctions. We’ve talked to Manchester-based food bank Barakah Food Aid after it circulated a letter that showed an unidentified claimant had been left with the meagre allowance.
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