26 July 2019
On Wednesday afternoon, Boris’ Downing Street speech followed the playbook set out in last week’s post, not so much “Silver Linings” as “Golden Age”. He reached out to the country, encouraged it to discount alarmism and confirmed that he was all-in to make sure everything turns out fine. He opened the goodie-bag, touching on compensation for Brexit frictions as well as expenditures on green projects, infrastructure, social care and much else. He also made a unilateral offer to immigrants of generous treatment for those here on B-day, going further in Thursday’s Parliamentary remarks to contemplate an amnesty for those whose papers are awry.
The new Prime Minister now needs a succession of wins to cement momentum. Wednesday evening’s Cabinet appointments served that purpose as showing initial decisiveness. We may take it that the first Cabinet used pneumatic drills to get it across to spending departments that any bleating as budgets are rebalanced towards no-deal prep will lead to instant ministerial dismissal. Indeed, I’d not be surprised by an exemplary Cabinet sacking in short order to ram home the lesson of who’s the daddy. This may well embrace someone more-or-less harmless (the brutal way of man-management under pressure in the private sector) and the occasion for a comeback for one of the substitutes surprisingly relegated to the benches, Baker and Brokenshire.
The last day of parliamentary business was marked by bravura despatch-box debuts by Rees-Mogg and Johnson. The former was charming and wholly in command as Leader of the House. After Boris’ roseate “golden age” statement, he batted away 129 questions from all quarters with courtesy, humour and often detailed recognition of the questioners’ parliamentary constituency, career and concerns. Now to see if the new team can keep up that energy and attentiveness, transmit it down the line and use it to obtain effective results.
The PM’s remarks and Brussels’ prompt responses suggest that the Government’s tack is to put up demands which the EU won’t stomach and blame them for walking away. The backstop is a convenient token for the WA’s general unacceptability; for a fuller account, read here. Boris seems to get this: in a reply to a question from a Labour MP, he said, “As a first step - let me put it that way - we need to get rid of the backstop”. If so, seeing Barnier only makes sense as an occasion for a walkout, with a view to rallying domestic opinion behind “No Deal”. Brussels will sense the risks and be correspondingly on guard against giving the Brits such an opportunity. But this could easily be a hangman’s kit for the EU as any reluctance to engage can be spun into “walking away”.
I’ve been asked if I think Boris will try to engineer deselections of Remainer MPs by Leaver constituency associations? This comes up against the familiar “willing to wound but afraid to strike” of disaffected Tories. Or to put it another way, failed deselections will simply provoke further anti-Boris venom from the Hammonds of this world. All of which said, let me not rule out one or two such attempts, while surmising that Boris will want to keep his fingerprints well off them.
Now that Leavers have control of official information, the flow will alter accordingly. I expect August to be garnished with uplifting announcements of preparations for no deal. Count also on stagey leaks of Civil Service relief at a clear policy direction, plus spicy anecdotes about the failings of May’s ministers and the obstinacy of Brussels. But then again, mood-music is one thing, policy achievements something else altogether. Boris needs something to brag about in short order, for choice at the G7’s closing press conference on 26 August, or as a backmarker to bring to the Commons when it returns on 3 September. Failing this, he will have no choice but to step up official criticism of Brussels, for which his remarks are already paving the way. To conclude, at this point I’m not looking for an election this side of Halloween, as I can’t see the Tories asking for a second doctor’s mandate unless Brussels is provoked into outright antagonism. The playbook is ready for this.