3 Oct 2017

Boris Johnson cheers Tory troops

This afternoon, for the first time, the conference hall has been full. There was even a queue to get in. No coincidence that the afternoon was dominated by the Cabinet’s Brexiteers and the big attraction was Boris Johnson.

But his warm-up act was the Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon who it is fair to say, has never worshipped at the inner shrine. He made a series of swipes at the man speaking after him. He lightly ridiculed the £350m Vote Leave referendum slogan, making a pointed reference to discipline and mocking Boris Johnson’s borrowing of Churchill’s “lion that roared” phrase which closed his speech.

That didn’t do anything to dim the very warm reception for the Foreign Secretary. I pointed out to one Cabinet minister that the activists didn’t seem to pick up on the references and many still adored the Foreign Secretary. “Well they’ll never get to see his name on a ballot paper,” the minister said. It was a reference to the fact that MPs under the leadership rules decide which two names go to the members to vote on. The minimum a candidate could get through on is just over 100 MPs’ support. “He’s a good 70 short of that,” the minister said.

Boris Johnson swore undying loyalty to the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, announcing the aim of a transition period of about two years. But it’s emerging that the government would dearly like to make sure that this “status quo” arrangement does have some big exemptions to it. In particular, ministers don’t want the Commons Fisheries Policy carrying on, with its annual quotas etc., with Britain not in the room for the talks. The government is hoping that the EU will see the rationale of such an exemption and realise the alternative would offend all notions of fair play. They might, on the other hand, spot a UK desperate to avoid an embarrassing exposure of British powerlessness, created by the transition, and wonder what they can extract in return in another part of the negotiation. Then again, they might just say a flat “no.”

Minds have already turned in government to what can be done to make the March 2019 moment of Brexit actually something you can see tangible signs of, given the amount of continuity required to extract a transition period from the EU. No. 10 will want some “quick wins” to underline the reality of what has happened and, they hope, to help the country move on and help the Tory Party to do the same.

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