( This is considerably rewritten in the light of the news that Boris Johnson will make his public pitch tomorrow, Wednesday)
What a depressing business it is to be one of the 60 million plus UK voters looking on while the Conservative leadership candidates go through their hoops. It has little to do with discovering where the real world of Brexit lies. As the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have observed, surveying his troops before Waterloo: ” I don’t know what they do to the enemy but by God they frighten me.”
For candidates, the blunt truth is that campaigning for the leadership is a different exercise from the big encounter with the EU. But it has to be won first and different even contradictory tactics are required. The impact on politicians ‘ wider credibility is ignored.
Between now and next Thursday 20 June at the latest, it’s all about whether two hard line No Dealers, or one no Dealer and one so called Remainer will make it onto the ballot for party members to chose between them and for the whole process to be wrapped up on 20 July.
In personality terms this means a choice to put before the membership between two arch Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, or Boris Johnson and one principled anti- No Dealer from among the cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, with Hunt – (“Theresa May with smarm”) currently having the edge.
Next Thursday’s choice – before it goes to the membership – is critical. Two hard Brexiteers makes a No Deal departure more likely. One from each side suggests MPs would tolerate a longer search for agreement with a Deal at the end. Johnson will avoid Theresa May’s mistake of negotiating by remote control through a civil servant and isolating herself from the cabinet. If Johnson works for cabinet unity and chooses a cabinet colleague like Jeremy Hunt or even his old nemesis Michael Gove over Dominc Raab, he will be signalling a willingness to compromise on the apparently hard line of his Sunday Times interview.
The lesson from Peterborough is that we must get Brexit done by October 31 or we face the real risk of a Jeremy Corbyn government… (He will..) tear up the withdrawal agreement, shed the old intellectual prison of the backstop arrangements.. and .. “shed the old intellectual prison of the backstop arrangements” send ministers rather than officials to play hardball with Brussels and prepare for no deal in the hope that that shifts the dial in Brussels.
“We will have in the UK a new administration with a new mandate.. We will have a different attitude in the negotiating team and a different negotiating team.” He wants issues surrounding the Irish border consigned “to the discussion on the future partnership which is where it logically belongs and where it should have been all along”.
To sweeten the pill he plans to unilaterally and “unconditionally” recognise the rights of the 3.2m EU nationals in the UK. “That is something that I think would be very welcome on the other side of the Channel.”
He has two pieces of leverage. The first is to prepare properly for no deal. “My duty will be to get our country ready for the very, very small possibility of coming out without a deal on WTO [World Trade Organisation] terms. It is only by being ready to deliver it that you will get the deal that we need.” Johnson is clear on where he gets his leverage from — the money. He pledges not to hand over the £39bn agreed by May until he gets what he wants. “I think our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward. I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write that entire cheque before having a final deal.”
Tomorrow Wednesday he will make his public pitch at last and be open for sceptical questioning about his insistence on the Hallowe’en deadline and his breezy optimism against the evidence that the withdrawal agreement is up for full renegotiation. On the other side the EU will realise they haven’t secured a ratified treaty. Both sides will surely realise there is more left to do after 31 October.
Johnson may end up playing the harder ball with his MPs than the EU. With whatever emerges from Brussels, he may have to face his party “with surrender or die” in the general election that would surely follow an immediate Labour vote of confidence to bring the government down. All Tory MPs, ERG fanatics tempted to cry “betrayal” included, would want to avoid that just now. The ultimatum itself would be more important than its terms. A controversial alternative would be to prorogue parliament ( for parliament to rise) before the end of July and defer a new Session until it was too late for MPs to block withdrawal by 31 October. Either strategy assumes Boris could win cabinet backing for the biggest political gamble in modern British history. Flushed with his personal victory combined the looming threat to party survival, he might pull it off. If he calculates that this is no longer a Remain parliament, he might be right if the choice is between settling for a less than ideal deal in the end or surviving in politics.
The alternative to No Deal is Theresa May mark 2 or “Nixon goes to China.”. It isn’t necessarily true that nothing in the world of Brexit would have changed. A codicil to the withdrawal agreement and the conditional phasing out of the backstop does not look non-negotiable. Faced with the “surrender or die,” ultimatum, minor amendments to the withdrawal agreement might be hyped as victory, although they would all look very sheepish. Such a new deal would have to emerge in the negotiations. If put to parliament in advance Boris would have to be sure that it would win the backing of the DUP and his own party dissidents to carry a majority. This time pro-Leave Labour MPs would be even less likely to support a Boris plan than Theresa May’s. A partner negotiator with the EU like Jeremy Hunt might just pull it off and defer most of the substantive negotiations to the terms of the political declaration.
“Just get on with it” would have won but it would be very tight. Why might Boris succeed where Theresa had failed? Because by replacing her they used up the last alternative in their control before facing a general election. Optimists for an orderly outcome are encouraged by the backing Boris is acquiring from all sides of the party. “Boris may be behind the steering wheel but boy, does he need help with the sat nav, ” is one vivid image. No wonder Boris has been ducking scrutiny. He can avoid it no longer.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London