Boris Johnson is dragging his scattergun campaign to No 10 on the back of Brexit ‘belief’ alone

The frontrunner is relying on the Tories doing what parties sometimes do – choosing a new leader to  overcompensate for the mistakes of their predecessors

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 03 July 2019 17:33
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Boris Johnson mistakes how much the national living wage is

Boris Johnson’s campaign has too many cooks whipping up their own policy mixes. As a result, his team is sending confusing and conflicting signals on what he would do as prime minister.

The frontrunner in the Tory leadership race was thrown on to the defensive over a plan to hand out tax cuts for people earning over £50,000. He insists his priority is those on low incomes. He declined to endorse the promise of a pay rise for public sector workers by Matt Hancock, one of his cabinet supporters. He denied knowledge of plans for a cull of seven Whitehall departments floated by another ally.

Today Boris outlined proposals to review “sin taxes” on sugary and fatty foods, just as Hancock, the health secretary, plans to extend the “sugar tax” to milkshakes.

“There are too many freelance operations,” one Boris backer admitted. It’s not the message discipline for which Sir Lynton Crosby, Johnson’s adviser, is famous. It is part of a wider problem: some Tories project on to Johnson what they want him to be. His desire to please everyone will mean trouble ahead, and not just on Brexit.

Allies admit that his rival Jeremy Hunt is putting up a tougher fight than they expected. There are signs that some Tory members have decided to back Hunt, impressed by him after sizing up both candidates at hustings events. So the result might be closer than Johnson would like – ideally, a mandate from at least 60 per cent of the membership. One senior Tory told me: “I reckon it’s 55 per cent [for Boris] to 45 per cent [Hunt].” Another said: “I predict 52 to 48,” only half joking.

No one knows. So Johnson allies are rattled by Hunt’s move on to their territory, with his hardening rhetoric about a no-deal exit, timed before members start to receive their ballot papers on Saturday. While some Hunt supporters are squeamish about the consequences of no deal, he calculates they have nowhere else to go, and is trying to neutralise his weakness amongst Tory members, two-thirds of whom back no deal.

Officially, the Johnson camp dismisses Hunt’s tougher language as more “flip-flopping”. But it has gone negative and personal, warning that Hunt would be a “pushover” for Brussels and would repeat Theresa May’s “disaster” by delaying Brexit beyond 31 October. Boris allies like to claim Hunt cannot believe in Brexit because, like May, he was a Remainer in 2016.

Andrea Leadsom, the former Commons leader, told Chopper’s Brexit podcast for The Daily Telegraph: “Not only is he [Johnson] a committed Brexiteer but he also believes in it. The thing I have learnt, is that if you didn’t believe in Brexit, it is very difficult to be a born again Brexiteer.” While she “admires” Remainers who respect the 2016 referendum result, she detects that their “heart is not in it”.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Brexit minister, told Sky News: “The worry is that Jeremy Hunt is in exactly the same position as Theresa May was in ... someone who backed Remain and has now seen the error of his ways.”

Civil servants are also viewed as unbelievers. Olly Robbins, the outgoing Brexit negotiator, is branded one of “the mandarin class” who, like May, view Brexit as a blow to be softened rather than a golden opportunity. This is unfair, since Robbins did May’s bidding.

So we now have purism as well as populism as Johnson plays to the party’s base. He pledges to “unite the party and then the country” – a message he will underline at a hustings in Scotland on Friday. He dismisses the idea he is a right-wing populist as “complete hysteria”, saying he proved the same critics wrong as London mayor. Yet at the hustings, he does not talk about the 48 per cent. It sometimes feels as if they do not exist in Borisland.

Johnson is relying on the Tories doing what parties sometimes do choosing a new leader to overcompensate for the mistakes of their predecessors. (Think Jeremy Corbyn and New Labour.)

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Johnson is “not May”, while Hunt is labelled “Theresa in trousers” and “May Mark 2”. Which is why Hunt tells Tory members he disagreed with May over the hated Irish backstop and never believed her deal would win Commons approval (but supported her as “a loyal foreign secretary”, unlike someone else he does not need to name).

At least Hunt dares to talk about the 48 per cent, promising a Brexit settlement that works for them as well as the 52 per cent. Johnson should beware, especially if the Commons forces him into a general election. Polls suggest a no-deal Brexit is supported by about 28 per cent of the public. How can he “unite the country” around a form of Brexit that no one voted for in 2016, and which the chancellor Philip Hammond warns will blow a £90bn hole in the public finances?

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