Boris's Golden Age playbook is opened...

Boris's Golden Age playbook is opened...

by Miles Saltiel
article from Tuesday 30, July, 2019

LAST WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, Boris’ Downing Street speech followed the playbook set out in previous post, not so much “Silver Linings” as “Golden Age”. He reached out to the country, encouraged it to discount alarmism and confirmed that he was all-in to make sure everything turns out fine. He opened the goodie-bag, touching on compensation for Brexit frictions as well as expenditures on green projects, infrastructure, social care and much else. He also made a unilateral offer to immigrants of generous treatment for those here on B-day, going further in Thursday’s Parliamentary remarks contemplating an amnesty for those whose papers are awry.

The new Prime Minister now needs a succession of “wins” to cement momentum. Wednesday evening’s Cabinet appointments served that purpose as showing initial decisiveness. We may take it that the first Cabinet used pneumatic drills to get it across to spending departments that any bleating as budgets are rebalanced towards no-deal preparations will lead to instant ministerial dismissal. Indeed, I’d not be surprised by an exemplary Cabinet sacking in short order to ram home the lesson of who’s the daddy. This may well embrace someone more-or-less harmless (the brutal way of high-pressure in the private sector) and the occasion for a comeback for one of the substitutes surprisingly relegated to the benches, Baker and Brokenshire. 

The last day of parliamentary business was marked by bravura despatch-box debuts by Rees-Mogg and Johnson. The former was charming and wholly in command as Leader of the House. After Boris’ roseate “golden age” statement, he batted away 129 questions from all quarters with courtesy, humour and often detailed recognition of the questioners’ parliamentary constituency, career and concerns. Now to see if the new team can keep up that energy and attentiveness, transmit it down the line and use it to obtain effective results.

The PM’s remarks and Brussels’ prompt responses suggest that the Government’s tack is to put up demands which the EU won’t stomach and blame them for walking away. The backstop is a convenient token for the WA’s general unacceptability; for a fuller account, read here. Boris seems to get this: in a reply to a question from a Labour MP, he said, “As a first step - let me put it that way - we need to get rid of the backstop”. If so, seeing Barnier only makes sense as an occasion for a walkout, with a view to rallying domestic opinion behind “No Deal”. Brussels will get this and will be correspondingly on guard against giving the Brits such an opportunity. But this could easily be a hangman’s kit for the EU as any reluctance to engage can be spun into “walking away”.

I’ve been asked if I think Boris will try to engineer deselections of Remainer MPs by Leaver constituency associations? This comes up against the familiar “willing to wound but afraid to strike” of disaffected Tories. Or to put it another way, failed deselections will simply provoke further anti-Boris venom from the Hammonds of this world. All of which said, let me not rule out one or two such attempts, while surmising that Boris will want to keep his fingerprints well off them. 

Now that Leavers have control of official information, the flow will alter accordingly. I expect August to be garnished with uplifting announcements of preparations for no deal. Count also on stagey leaks of Civil Service relief at a clear policy direction, plus spicy anecdotes about the failings of May’s ministers and the obstinacy of Brussels. Even so, if Boris has nothing positive to show by the G7 meeting over the long weekend of 24 to 26 August, or as a backmarker by the return of Parliament on 3 September, he will have no choice but to step up official criticism of Brussels, for which his remarks are already paving the way. I see nothing to suggest an election this side of Halloween, as I can’t see the Tories asking for a second doctor’s mandate unless Brussels is provoked into outright antagonism. Which could be one of the playbook’s objectives.

Further interesting points have emerged:

  1. Reading between the lines, it seems that the FO reached out to EU ambassadors on Wednesday evening to find out what leeway there might be on the backstop. This was so that the following day, Boris could state with precision a precondition for talks which he knew would be unacceptable.
  2. I surmise that Baker was disappointed not to get the job ending up with Cummings. I fear his ambition may have been encouraged by those unaware of the availability of Cummings who undoubtedly has a better CV. The expected reports of staffers’ relief at clear policy directions have surfaced already.
  3. Labour sources suggest that Corbyn is privately moving towards holding off a no confidence motion until 1 November. He accepts that his fingerprints would be all over the outcome. Even so, he believes he’d win an election by a landslide. This is on a view that Brexit would no longer split the former Leave vote, no-deal chaos would help Labour and he can return to his querencias of austerity and inequality. In addition, if victorious he relishes his prospective freedom from EU restrictions on confiscation and exchange controls. This tack may be confronted at Labour’s September conference. Parenthetically, sources at the venue, the Brighton Metropole, indicate that planning has barely started: at this stage all bar the finishing touches should be sorted.
  4. German industrial sources are fully seized of the fact that over one third of Ireland’s trade is with the UK. Most of the balance is perishable goods, trucked through the UK to the rest of the EU, as unable to survive maritime carriage. Ireland risks disruption and the EU an unmeasured tab - largely to be borne by Germany! Worse still, they fear, any outcry from US-Irish politicians is set to be redirected by Trump into blaming Brussels for its obstinacy in impoverishing the Irish and risking a hard border.
  5. German sources also note that their own economy is entering recession on every lead indicator. This has led industry privately and media publicly to press the government to lean on Brussels for leeway on negotiation. Nonetheless, Germans expect the EU to carry on regardless - unyielding in the belief that any Brexit other than on EU terms or chaotic would jeopardise the European project.
  6. Not yet front and centre, but I hear that the ANZAC group are preparing a joint position on a multilateral FTA.
  7. Judge the new team by how it meets its key targets for the next four weeks: thwarting Commons opposition by changing the weather on the streets; culling Ireland from the protection of the herd; and getting an MOU out of Trump.
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