2 Oct 2017

Boris causes problems – but is he still the star of conference?

Philip Hammond has just told Radio 4 that Boris Johnson’s absolute two- year limit on a transition, nailed to the church door in his “Sun” article, was “a rhetorical flourish”. I think that is Treasury-speak for “a giant porkie”.

He’d seen the phrase “about two years” in the PM’s speech and did not attack it at the Cabinet meeting, one Cabinet minister told me. He said “something like ‘marvellous,’ ‘great step forward,'” a cabinet minister told me. “The minutes will show he didn’t say in Cabinet what he is saying in “The Sun,” the Cabinet minister said.

Michael Gove is said to have made most of the running in Cabinet discussing whether the EU could impose a raft of new laws and regulations while the UK is a non-voting participant in the transition period. That’s another of Boris Johnson’s personal negotiations manifesto in “The Sun.”

No 10 believes the EU moves at such a glacial pace that it won’t be able to pop up with brand new laws from a clear blue sky between 2019-2021. As one pro-Brexit Cabinet minister said: “If we’ve got a transition we’ve managed to have a deal in outline and relations will be ok,” implying the EU27 wouldn’t impose snap bans or regulations that were targeted at the UK and would be inimical to UK interests.

The frustration with Boris Johnson seems to be everywhere until you go into a fringe meeting he’s addressing and hear the laughter and cheering. At a fringe event for Gibraltar he said he hoped the Rock would carry on in its current state for “another 50 years.” Catching himself, as so often a little later than might be ideal, he realised that sounded a bit like a sunset clause on Gibraltar sovereignty and said “and another 50 years after that.” It didn’t matter, a room humming with young men in suits cheered him on.

The mood at this conference is pretty dire. Ruth Davidson, one of the stars of the party, got a warm reception for her speech to the conference but the hall is a wide flat space and a difficult hall to electrify. When the Scottish Tories’ leader finished the current was switched off altogether. James Brokenshire was announced as the next speaker. I have seen emergency building evacuations conducted with less speed as activists en masse charged to the exits.

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