In the margins of the Tory conference, ministers have hyped up the prospect of reaching a Brexit deal. But there was little in Boris Johnson’s closing speech today to suggest agreement with the EU is possible. The prospect is receding.
Johnson spoke the language of “compromise”, citing his proposal for Northern Ireland to align with EU single market rules. But he knew full well his “final offer” could only be an opening bid if any real progress is to be made. He knows his insistence on customs checks on the island of Ireland, even if away from the border, crosses a thick red line for the EU. The early reaction from Brussels was negative.
Watching the speech here in Manchester, and reflecting on the unjustified optimism of ministers, I concluded that, while Johnson wants a deal, he probably knows he is unlikely to get one. But he wants to show voters he has tried hard for an agreement. Allies hope this will help him to portray Brussels as obstructionist and unreasonable when he tries to justify no-deal, perhaps in an election campaign. Brussels will share responsibility in the “blame game” with parliament – a target for ridicule in Johnson’s speech because it “refuses to deliver Brexit, refuses to do anything constructive and refuses to have an election”.
Tory activists in the hall welcomed his repeated promise to “get Brexit done” on 31 October. But scratch the surface during this conference, and you detected an undercurrent of anxiety about how Johnson will square the circle. He promises to leave “come what may” but has also said he would obey the law. That now includes the Benn Act, requiring him to seek an extension of the UK’s EU membership if no agreement is approved by 19 October.
What Johnson could not tell his party members today, is that, while he might initially refuse to comply with the act, he might end up reluctantly seeking an extension after being ordered to do so by the courts. Another option – resign, let Jeremy Corbyn get the extension as prime minister, oust him and force an election – has been considered but looks less likely now. It’s high risk, and might make Johnson look weak. An extension under duress, and adding the judiciary to the “blame game” cast in an election, seems to me to be the most likely scenario.
The other theme in Johnson’s speech was that he is still the One Nation Tory who served as London Mayor. It was a tacit admission that his liberal credentials have been tarnished by Brexit.
His between-the-lines message was that normal One Nation service would be resumed once Brexit was finally resolved. He promised an “immense agenda” to take the country forward. His defence of capitalism got a big cheer, but he coupled it with a declaration that the Tories are now “the party of the NHS”. He does not share the view of some of his predecessors that the NHS is a Labour issue on which the Tories can never win. He reiterated his support for gay rights, his vision was for a country where “provided you obey the law and do no harm to others, you can live your life and love whomsoever you choose”.
Moderate Tories have felt pretty marginalised at this conference, and fear his chasing of angry Leave voters will alienate long-standing centre-ground conservatives. Ryan Shorthouse, director of the liberal conservative Bright Blue think tank, warned after the speech that a no-deal exit could lose the Tories the support of millennials for a generation. They would not forgive the party, he said, like the working class communities hit by pit closures in the Thatcher era.
Some of the 21 MPs who lost the whip for rebelling over a no-deal Brexit, such as David Gauke, Dominic Grieve and Alistair Burt, spoke at fringe meetings. Many Tory MPs believe their expulsion was a huge mistake, sending a terrible signal to centre-ground voters. “It will cost some of us 1,000 votes,” one MP told me. “Those in very marginal seats can’t afford that.”
Removing the whip was hardly the act of a liberal prime minister who pledged during the Tory leadership election to unite his party and then the country. Brexit has changed Johnson. Its toxicity showed in his intemperate language in the Commons last week, and his apparent dismissal of female MPs’ fears about the threats of violence against them.
His speech was an attempt to reassure Tory moderates that he is still one of them, that his aggressive stance on Brexit and alliance with the European Research Group is tactical and temporary. “He is not on the Eurosceptic right,” one Tory moderate said. “But he has put himself in a position on Brexit where he now looks like he is.” He hoped that “we will get our Boris back”.
However, that will depend on a Brexit endgame that no one can predict. Not even Johnson.
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