Normally, Downing Street is half-empty in August, due to the holiday season and parliament being in recess. This year, No 10 is buzzing with activity; this week, I was surprised to see every desk occupied.
Political advisers have been banned from taking holidays until 31 October. Boris Johnson has written to all civil servants, urging them to prepare “urgently and rapidly” for exit day as their top priority. Michael Gove, the minister responsible for no-deal planning, has disclosed that a support fund will prop up companies hit by a no-deal exit.
Is it, as some MPs believe, all an elaborate wind-up, designed to show the EU that Boris is serious about leaving with no deal, so it makes concessions? I don’t think so. Johnson believes the EU is now getting his message, and is more optimistic than some of his allies that a revised agreement can still be reached.
But if that doesn’t happen, he will not pull back from the cliff edge. As I left Downing Street, some words from Tony Blair came into my mind. After his 2001 election victory, a long-standing colleague told him: “Come on Tony, now we’ve won again, can’t we drop all this New Labour and do what we believe in?” Blair replied: “It’s worse than you think. I really do believe in it.”
Today, it’s worse than the doubters think; Boris and his team really do believe in it. They talk openly about “the election”, not whether there will soon be one. The crowded No 10 offices reflect not just war-style planning for Brexit but action on the domestic front. The past week was “NHS week”.
There were announcements of more money and changes to senior doctors’ pension rules, and plenty of TV pictures of Johnson visiting hospitals. It wasn’t just a token effort to cover up the Tories’ Achilles heel. Boris will keep banging on about the NHS. He has rejected the mantra of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign guru who helped him win two London mayoral elections, that there is no point in the Tories talking about health because they can’t win on the issue.
Next week the government will talk tough on crime, on which Team Boris thinks the Tories have lost ground. There are plans for more prison places, and the former justice secretary David Gauke’s proposal to abolish jail sentences of six months or less for all but the most serious offenders will likely be binned.
Then Johnson will turn his attention to education, with more money for schools likely to be announced as children return from their summer break.
If Johnson defies the odds by getting a new Brexit deal, he would probably delay the election until next spring. But he has told his aides: “We can’t have an election before we deliver Brexit.”
It’s easy to see why he is attracted by the idea of an election immediately after 31 October, even if that provokes a huge controversy about shutting down parliament so it cannot stop no deal. Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning the Tories probably need to be eight points ahead of Labour in the share of the vote to win an overall majority.
At present, the opinion polls suggest a Tory lead of about five or six points. So the Tories “need to squeeze the Brexit Party vote further”, Curtice said. Nigel Farage’s party has slipped to 13-14 per cent since Boris became PM. Crucially, about half the Brexit Party’s supporters would switch to the Tories if they delivered Brexit. So that could make all the difference.
However, the chances of another hung parliament are high. Curtice pointed out that we could see a record number of MPs for parties other than the Tories and Labour, making it harder for either of the traditional big two to win a majority.
With Labour on 25-26 per cent and the resurgent Liberal Democrats at about 18 per cent, Tory strategists hope the divide among their opponents will work to their advantage. They believe Jeremy Corbyn’s fence-sitting on Brexit has lasted so long that Labour would be unable to scoop up the Remain vote even if he jumped off it now. They might be proved right: in some seats, the split between Labour and the main pro-Remain candidate could allow the Tories to win.
For Remainers, this makes it even more important that the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru join forces in as many seats as possible. There are signs that Unite to Remain, the organisation set up by the former Tory and now independent MP Heidi Allen, is making progress. The three parties are likely to sign a non-aggression pact in about 30 constituencies this month, before moving on to areas where it might be more difficult to reach agreement locally on which party should run on a Unite to Remain ticket.
Giving up seats to another party is a painful thing to do but the bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the reward, and greater the chance of stopping Boris and Brexit.
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