Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership pledges don’t stand up under scrutiny – MPs must hold him to account

There are worrying rumours that if Mr Johnson is streets ahead of candidates in this week’s ballots, they might stand aside to allow him a coronation. Judging by his promises, that would be very dangerous indeed

Sunday 09 June 2019 16:07
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Boris Johnson’s safety first campaign for the Conservative Party leadership might be out of character, but is undoubtedly working. The former foreign secretary, who failed to impress in that post, is the firm favourite in the race that begins officially on Monday to succeed Theresa May in the top job.

His closest rivals unwittingly make Johnson more attractive in the eyes of Tory MPs. Dominic Raab’s Thatcherite approach to domestic policy and his implied threat to shut down parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit, rightly worry mainstream Tories. Michael Gove has been sidetracked, at least temporarily, by his admission that he took cocaine on several occasions 20 years ago. Jeremy Hunt may struggle to persuade the Tory members who have the final say to elect someone who backed Remain in 2016.

So Mr Johnson’s first interview of his surprisingly low-key campaign deserves close scrutiny. He told The Sunday Times the UK’s £39bn divorce payment to the EU should be “retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward”. He would scrap the proposed Irish backstop and put pressure on the EU to change it by “preparing properly for no deal”.

Given that Mr Johnson had plenty of time to prepare for his first major statement of the campaign, he needed to do better than this. The government estimates that about £35bn of the £39bn is payable under international law. As the chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show last month: “Our legal advice is that we are likely to have to pay most if not all of that money.”

Mr Johnson might not like the fact that Ms May conceded the £39bn at a relatively early stage of the negotiations, but whoever becomes our new prime minister must live in the real world, not the comfortable parallel universe in which the Tory leadership election is largely being conducted.

There might be a small window of opportunity for Ms May’s successor to reset the negotiations if he or she acts constructively, perhaps by tweaking the backstop, but it is naive to believe the EU will give in to financial blackmail. Rather, it would strengthen the hands of those in the EU, including Emmanuel Macron, who are ready to cut their troublesome neighbour loose.

In his interview, Mr Johnson spoke of “the very, very small possibility of coming out without a deal on WTO [World Trade Organisation] terms,” arguing that this threat would ensure “you will get the deal that we need”. But his approach would make an economically damaging no-deal exit a much greater possibility than he admits. Indeed, his threat could easily become self-fulfilling; if no deal is what he really wants, he should be honest about it.

Mr Johnson sticks rigidly to a 31 October departure come what may. That, too, is risky, as Mr Hunt, Mr Gove and Rory Stewart have suggested. The Tory contest and the summer break in Brussels will make time very short. There will be a hiatus in the EU, with a new European Commission taking office in November. A further extension of the Article 50 process would be much better than recklessly crashing out just to avoid another delay.

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While presenting himself as a more serious person than during his ill-fated 2016 leadership campaign, Mr Johnson appears to have lost none of the opportunism which probably tipped him into the Leave camp after he composed alternative articles for and against Brexit. He noticeably refused to commit to taking part in a televised debate for the Tory candidates the BBC has scheduled for 18 June. Perhaps he will judge he has everything to lose and little to gain. But it would be outrageous if he refused to let the public have at least a glimpse of a contest which is too important to be left to an internal Tory debate behind closed doors.

Similarly, there are worrying rumours that if Mr Johnson is streets ahead in the ballots among Tory MPs that begin this week, other candidates might stand aside to allow him a coronation without facing a month of debates in front of party members. A longer campaign would also force the two candidates in the run-off to flesh out their non-Brexit agenda.

Mr Johnson’s rivals should remember what happened after an untested Ms May landed the job without proper scrutiny her disastrous 2017 general election campaign. For the sake of the country as well as themselves, the Tories should not repeat their mistake.

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