Gracing the latest televised Tory leadership debate with his presence last night, Boris Johnson didn’t ‘sparkle’ in the way that those who believe he possesses electoral fairy dust hoped he could. But the seemingly immovable frontrunner didn’t need to: the bar has been lowered so that not seriously embarrassing himself was his only task. Of course, comments that might be considered seriously embarrassing at another time no longer are, and perhaps those standards never applied to him. Johnson’s inscrutable Brexit plan and double-dealing have not damaged his chances.
Responding to the first question of the evening, the favourite-to-win affirmed that not delivering Brexit by October 31st would mean a “catastrophic loss of confidence in politics” – words that will surely be used against him later. But he didn’t offer a clear “guarantee” that he would take the UK out by that date. Again, he didn’t need to – the hardest Brexiteer in the race, Dominic Raab, was knocked out shortly before the debate and therefore absent. Rory Stewart, who many hoped would take our next Prime Minister to task on his contradictory Brexit statements, was instead lost in the horrible BBC format and resorted to taking off his tie (apparently this is another Etonian-style debating trick).
There were other moments that could have been classified as seriously embarrassing. Johnson said his remarks on the imprisonment of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe didn’t “make any difference”. Her husband Richard disagrees and says those words are still being used against her. And yet this kind of thing is like water off a duck’s back, with Johnson expected to maintain a huge lead over his rivals in the next round of parliamentary voting this afternoon.
While the Tory fight for second place rages on, Labour is hitting the headlines on account of its developing Brexit position. The special shadow cabinet meeting postponed on Monday will take place today, when I’m told opposition frontbenchers will look at evidence from polls and recent elections and consider policy issues. Not a big showdown. But it is expected they will cover a new briefing paper by policy chief Andrew Fisher, which recommends the party backs another referendum in all circumstances and backs Remain.
As I understand it, the leadership is ready to formalise the commitment Jeremy Corbyn has already made since the European elections – to a public vote on any Brexit deal, meaning we will go into conference with that as official policy. Yet there is no clear indication so far that the leader is ready to pre-endorse Remain in that vote, which is what Tom Watson called for this week and what is demanded of Labour in the anti-Brexit motion being considered by hundreds of local parties.
There is still significant resistance to the idea of another referendum, and even more so to becoming a party of Remain, both from within the leader’s office and from individual shadow cabinet members. When I spoke to party chair Ian Lavery on Pienaar’s Politics recently, he accepted that Labour was now committed to a referendum on any deal. But he continued to argue that being a party “standing up for the 100% rather than 50% is something worth considering”. Taking a side in the referendum campaign is a step too far.
Why? Top figures know that a key Labour asset at election time is the enthusiasm and mass mobilisation of activists, who are pro-EU. However, the plan seems to be that in the likely event of an early election the party would campaign on a promise to: extend Article 50, renegotiate the deal, campaign for that withdrawal agreement in parliament on the condition it is put to a public vote, then if successful campaign in the wider country against that deal and for revocation. The final stage would render the prior months of hard work in Brussels pointless, and would see Labour trash a deal that it had endorsed not long ago. The U-turn on Brexit desired by so many members is far from simple.