Boris Johnson, Tory TV debates and Labour’s Brexit challenge

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Boris Johnson is set to be our next Prime Minister. He won 114 votes in the first ballot of Conservative MPs yesterday – more than the next three candidates combined, and more than the 105 required to guarantee a place in the final two. Of course, MPs could switch to support others in the following rounds of voting, but a fierce whipping operation from Johnson’s team means this would probably only be done in a calculated way (to pick a preferred rival). And everyone wants a top job.

However, other candidates are increasingly letting their views on the frontrunner’s ‘submarine’ strategy be known. Jeremy Hunt pointed out this morning that he’s been on Today 16 times, whereas Johnson has appeared just once, and asked: “What would Churchill say if someone who wants to be Prime Minister was hiding away from scrutiny?”. Not only has Johnson avoided difficult questions on Radio 4 and got supporters to field them instead, he is now the only leadership candidate not to have agreed to TV debates. So much for his backing of Sky’s #MakeDebatesHappen campaign last year.

Proper scrutiny of our next Prime Minister is crucial, of course, but I find it difficult to imagine these televised debates would be fought on a wide spectrum of issues facing our country. ConservativeHome’s view that they would be a great opportunity for their party is exactly the problem for the rest of us. Without competition from an anti-austerity voice in the room, how would they be forced to address the real problems faced by people today after nearly a decade of Tory rule? From the cruel and ineffective immigration system to the experiences of homeless families across the country?

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see the whole affair contributing to the stumbling block that Gary Younge identifies in his latest Guardian column: our short attention span for the most serious issues. We are distracted by the drama, the next chapter is the exciting Johnson-Gove feud, forgetting what is important. Today marks the two-year anniversary of the avoidable Grenfell fire that killed 72 people. Are the candidates being asked why there are still 338 residential and public buildings using the same flammable cladding? Not so far. Those matters are left to the Fire Brigades Union to campaign on.

Meanwhile, there is no Labour leadership contest and no prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being forced out, but there is a proxy war being waged over Brexit. The deeply divided party is awash with speculation over who might be positioning themselves ahead of either a challenge (which would require a major trigger event) or the next natural opportunity to stand. Premature though such preparations might be, they are underway. And where the hopefuls place themselves on the Brexit spectrum is key.

The leadership has shifted to unambiguous support for ‘a public vote on any deal’. But this raises lots of unanswered questions. In an early election, does Labour stand on the manifesto promise of renegotiating the Brexit deal, then campaigning for a referendum on the new deal in parliament, then telling the country to back Remain? Does that make sense as a position?

There are many Labour MPs like Clive Lewis, often rumoured to have an eye on the top spot as a left-wing anti-Brexit figure, who say there is little chance of an election and Labour should throw all its energy into fighting for a public vote. But there are others, usually quieter in PLP meetings, who just want to see a clear decision made.

Gareth Snell’s LabourList piece addresses the frequently ignored crux of the matter: at some point, Labour will have to choose between a deal and revocation. The leadership is deeply uncomfortable with the latter option, but it has now settled on a stance that favours a process rather than any end-point. We have just over three months to go until conference, which will either kick the can further down the road or make a decision set to be very tough for many MPs and people who already feel isolated from the political elite.

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