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MICHAEL WHITE: The Tory endgame is in sight and there’s no stopping Boris now

Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson with supporters. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire - Credit: PA

MICHAEL WHITE on the week Boris Johnson was all-but crowned as the new European Union team looked on…

Martin Rowson for The New European – Credit: Archant

The Tory endgame is in sight and it’s starting to get serious. But for a few minutes on Monday morning I contemplated the preposterous notion that, once he is formally enthroned in No.10, the World King will demonstrate his inherent frivolity by appointing Nigel Farage as Britain’s next ambassador to the United States. The Brexit warlord, perhaps as Lord Brexit, would replace the leaked-against Kim Darroch who would be dispatched to a Uighur re-education camp for the grave diplomatic misdemeanour of telling the truth about the wacky Trump White House.

The idea would be to show solidarity by creating a dysfunctional embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. Don’t laugh. By Tuesday the Great Distractor decided to be in a mega sulk, tweeting his refusal to “deal” with an ambassador he claims not to know. ‘No deal’, as it were. At least not this week. But since we last met here, Whitehall insider Sir John Sawers has joined the discreet chorus of nervous UK officials questioning the quality of political leadership on offer closer to home, on the rival stalls in Westminster market. This was before he watched the WK waffle his way through ITV’s candidates debate.

Sawers spoke mildly of a “political nervous breakdown” in Britain. So assuming that Sir Kim – not to be confused, Donald, with North Korea’s more cautious Mr Kim – actually wrote (or even read) the cables sent in his name, he will only have been passing on the all-but-universal consensus in Washington, to people braced for similar misrule at home. In an age of institutional disloyalty, of internet hacking and Kremlin trolls (RT has been suspiciously keen on this story) you wonder why Darroch took the risk when colleagues in London can read it every day in the New York Times online.

Whatever the motive of the leaker or hacker, the timing was bad for whoever succeeds Theresa May and has to show his ‘take back control’ face to a bully with whom they need a trade deal. At least Jeremy Hunt stood up for UK sovereignty in the ITV showdown. But my Farage Fantasy did not last. For one thing Farage graciously let it be known that he would not be available. He is already too busy not doing the job of MEP for which the European taxpayer coughs up 8,757.70 euros a month plus expenses, all in a currency fast appreciating against sterling. What’s more the avoidance of responsibility has long been a guiding principle of his life.

Last but far from least, we have recently learned that his media company is paying him a hefty £27,000 a month, which is even more than the Telegraph forks out for the WK’s column. Clearly Nige can’t afford to take another part-time job which could never make up for the loss of earnings on Steve Bannon TV, that is unless they change the rules to allow our ambassadors to charge cash-for-access as president Trump does at Mar-a-Lago.

How to handle Farage tactically over World King’s first (and last?) 100 days and his election scenario (voluntary or forced) is mere detail in the bigger picture. An important one in terms of party management, it is trivial compared with what Whitehall calls those “wicked issues”, ones that just won’t go away. Brexit is chief among them, of course. Is there any sign of progress? Yes and no. To widespread surprise, the big trades unions awoke from their Brexit slumber and agreed – rubber-stamped next day by the national executive (NEC) – to campaign both for a referendum and for Remain on any Tory Brexit deal made in this parliament.

Steady on there, put that bottle of breakfast Prosecco back in the fridge. Pro-Remain champion, the saintly Tom Watson (routinely abused by all the right people), declared the new union consensus a “step in the right direction”. Which it is, but only a tentative one. This is transparently a fudge, yet another abdication of leadership, not the kind of fudge which wily Harold Wilson would admire – or voters understand. If there is a snap, pre-Brexit autumn election and Labour wins – two large ifs – it would still promise a confirmatory vote with Remain on the ballot paper alongside its own, union-backed Brexit deal. But at this stage party bigwigs will not say whether it would actually campaign for Remain.

Got that? Well done. Ignore the catcalls and laughter, derision from the Lib Dems, cries of “betrayal” from Moggsters and Lord Farage. Labour’s unheroic fence-sitting does reflect a real dilemma. But this fudge looks no more than a response to lurid weekend reports – largely true, I can confirm – that patience with Jeremy Corbyn’s feebleness is close to breaking point. John McDonnell’s denial of reports that he wants chief of staff, Karie Murphy, and tank commander, Seumas Milne, removed was mere politesse. Those reporting it include Oxford grandee Will Hutton, as well as the usual suspects. We will avert our gaze again from debilitating anti-Semitism rows, human rights inquiries and futile gagging orders on staff, past and present and pretend they are all got up by the capitalist media. Haven’t they noticed how their fellow-leftists in Syriza got hammered by Greek voters for empty rhetorical promises on Sunday?

So are the Tories doing any better in the fight to see which party can be more “chaotic” and “dysfunctional”, its leadership (copyright K Darroch) “radiating most insecurity”? Perhaps. At least they’re mostly playing the ball. Rory Stewart, soon to be an ex-cabinet minister, explained how he would try to organise an “alternative parliament” if the WK tries to use a temporary prorogation to sideline MPs in favour of a no-deal Brexit. Walkabout Rory accused faint-hearts of being “oddly pessimistic” about their ability to thwart such a catastrophe. Guilty, M’Lord.

Splendid, splendid, as Willie Whitelaw used to say. But it’s hard to see the idea going far except as political theatre. Sam Gyimah, another pro-Remain ministerial refusnik, talks of “30+” Tory MPs willing to block a no-deal Brexit. Philip Hammond, current Wearer of the Long Trousers of State, is clearly going to be one of them. He is reported as offering to fund May’s deathbed spending pledges in return for her help in blocking no-deal. A repentant William (“foreign land”) Hague, as much to blame for our current malaise as anyone, similarly warns whoever wins the hollow crown not to ignore parliament. Nor to ignore business’s fears for the economy or endanger the Union. The World King prevaricates. That is his technique: ambiguity until boxed into a corner, then he snarls. “You’re peddling optimism, Boris… it’s not enough, you need details too,” suggests Hunt. “I am an optimist, you’re a defeatist,” snarls the WK.

Mid-week, Dominic Grieve had another plan, to amend one of the few bits of legislation which the becalmed May government and parliament cannot duck: the need to further extend civil service power to run the bare basics in Northern Ireland in the absence of a power-sharing Stormont government and assembly. It is needed because 150 cross-party and official meetings since writer Lyra McKee was murdered by the IRA in Derry have failed to find more than “an emerging consensus” for agreement (it sounds like the shadow cabinet’s Brexit stance). If there is no progress by October 21, the extension will go on to January 13. Talk about can-kicking. What a disgrace at such a time.

Team Grieve’s cunning plan was to attach an amendment – ie put into law – a requirement that the government report progress on Brexit talks every two weeks, thereby making harder any talk of a prorogation to facilitate a no-deal Brexit known to be against the wishes of both the sovereign parliament and the wider electorate. After ministers said they would accept the result, Grieve prevailed by just one vote – 294-293. Truly this country is divided. Backbench MPs also attached gay marriage and abortion rights equality to the bill, to the fury of the cake-eating DUP. It wants to be part of the UK except where it doesn’t.

But the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill debate could not help shed light on the Brexit stance of DUP MPs who have propped up the May government, except when they didn’t. Gosh, how self-absorbed and satisfied they were. When a level-headed Tory, Simon Hoare, new chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, gently suggested that the region’s farm exports, businesses and retail sectors might suffer a 9% fall in GDP in the event of no-deal – and that this might renew calls for a border poll that pro-Union British politicians like him (no, not you, Nigel) oppose, he was slapped down for encouraging the absent Sinn Fein. The biggest economic losers from no-deal would be the Republic of Ireland, Hoare was told.

Don’t think so. That very evening local businesses, farmers and exporters told the BBC’s Panorama how tricky no-deal might be. So did Cornish fisherfolk and Dover-bound truckers, though “brief disruption only” optimists included an Ulster border farmer who voted Leave but wants “the politicians” to sort out a deal to stop him having to slaughter his newly-tariffed lambs. The sensible truth is that no one knows for sure how such a “step into the unknown” would play out, probably both better and worse than protagonists on both sides imagine. Both sides cherry-pick the evidence and Ulster’s MPs illustrate how inflexible, ungenerous and entrenched some on both sides have become. We adapt, though not always well.

All the same it would be comforting if Nigel Dodds of the DUP’s confidence that no physical border will be needed unless the French and Germans force Dublin to erect one (they’re hinting, he told colleagues) was offset by a scintilla of anxiety that his own constituents may demand one in order to claim VAT rebates on goods bought in the Republic – itself bad news for Belfast retailers. Experts I listen to in worthy seminars say government is doing most of what it could, but that half our exporting businesses, especially smaller ones, haven’t yet grasped this expensive nettle. They want certainty. It will be regulations and compliance, more than lamb tariffs, that trip them up, the experts say.

Back in the unreal world of the Tory leadership contest, Candidate Johnson continues to tickle the tummies of the Tory selectorate and Brexit Party entryists. At one grassroots hustings at the Savoy Hotel (doesn’t everyone use it?) he insisted he is “thick-skinned” enough to handle hatred, which many doubt. A cascade of headline-friendly pledges drop from his lips. In the past few days “Boris Unmuzzled” has said that immigrants must learn English (but illegals will also get a one-off amnesty); that violent criminals must serve their full term; that a stop-and-search blitz will curb knife crime. Doctors’ pensions will be fixed and half a dozen ‘free ports’ dotted around the country will boost local economies.

I could go on, but fear Boris needs no encouragement. The free port idea (don’t we call that a customs border? Yes, we do) was quickly shot down by experts whose firms were not among those helping fund Bozzie Bear’s campaign. “I’m not bluffing… look deep into our eyes,” Bozzie the World King tells EU leaders, courtesy of the Sunday Telegraph. The portly lecher sprays around sporting metaphor and VAT cuts, praises liberty and the moral case (sic) for conservatism. He says he will “roll back the influence of the state” – whatever he thinks that means.

Oh yes, there was also a pandering attack on Matt Hancock’s plans to raise the sugar ‘sin tax’, an easy applause line for people who may need the NHS to repair their diabetes. Very Rees-Mogg! What’s not to like, eh? And Tory activists and newspapers duly love it. Jeremy Hunt gallantly goes through the motions, even dithering both ways on fox hunting. But he must know the runaway favourite has run away long enough to win already. Is it not astonishing that so intoxicated – I use the word figuratively – are many Tory activists that they voted once (possibly twice, reports the BBC) without waiting to watch Tuesday night’s first – yes, first and only – direct head-to-head between the underwhelming finalists?

It wasn’t hard to see why when we were all able to watch Head Boy Hunt on ITV looking credibly prime ministerial, if a bit Captain Sensible (no wonder John Major supports him) and implausible on the Halloween Brexit. But the World King looked shambolic (that suit, hands in his pockets!) and often sounded worse. On tax, the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and much else, he offered BoJo’s MoJo and not much else.

Will it change the result? No. They’re necking the Kool Aid. No more boring! On Wednesday morning, the much-mocked Grey Man Major popped up on the airwaves warning that he would go straight to the courts for judicial review if the World King tries to prorogue parliament. Invoking (irony alert) parliamentary sovereignty and the national interest, Major sounded deadly serious. Those were the days, eh!

What does Brussels’s Macron-inspired, new team think after looking deep into Boris’s eyes – and brain – and wondering on what secret he bases his declared ability to “cut through” three wasted years and deliver a convincingly better deal than May? All this in barely 12 weeks, including August.

Donald Trump, whose name is on the cover of The Art of the Deal (but who did not actually write it), learned in Manhattan property that when your bluff is called you must either walk away and take the hit (or dump it on staff and contractors) or compromise. But international treaties are not like a failed commercial negotiation where the status quo is restored. A unilateral no-deal Brexit is certain to leave the walkaway UK more vulnerable to miscalculation than the Remain 27, even if details man Hunt is in charge.

Moreover, as in Tehran, tough tactics also undermine potential allies on the other side – the pragmatic Germans or Dutch – while strengthening the mullahs of Brussels and raising expectations at home to dizzily silly heights.

Remember Syriza’s outgoing regime in Greece. Remember president Erdogan, defeated again in Istanbul and doubling down by sacking his central bank governor, Trump-style, because he wouldn’t further debauch the currency. Attacking the bureaucracy, the press and the experts is an age-old populist trope.

Experts make mistakes, but the alternatives are usually worse. Look at Orban’s Hungary, though Brussels would rather you look the other way.

The IMF’s Christine Lagarde, new president of the European Central Bank (ECB) is an adroit lawyer, not a central banker or an economist. But she’s French, so she’s political and not an orthodox German deflationist. The haggling unexpectedly dropped Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission job into the lap of Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s unloved defence minister, and promoted Belgium’s interim PM, an adroit, if hereditary, political operator, Charles Michel to Donald Tusk’s job as council president.

It leaves federalists from the EU’s old Carolingian (ie 9th century) core at the EU helm as the World King gears to dazzle them with a few sixes and converted tries.

As a warning shot to Britain, largely ignored by the Boris Booster press, the outgoing EU regime has been getting tough with Switzerland, whose anomalous cosiness within the EU single market is threatened by Brexit. Its withdrawal of ‘equivalence’ financial trading rights from the so-called gnomes of Zurich (Swiss bankers) may do the EU more harm than it does the gnomes. Let’s watch how things develop, but it’s not encouraging for the WK. Did anyone say “George Osborne as Europe’s choice for Lagarde’s IMF job”? George certainly did. But who does he think’s going to nominate him? The EU? Trump? Not the EU or Donald Trump, let alone John Major. No mates Britain.

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