BREXIT UPDATE 35: Boris and the Red Wine on the Sofa: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

June 24, 2019

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BREXIT UPDATE 35: Boris and the Red Wine on the Sofa

The Conservative Leadership contest has now been whittled down to the final two candidates: the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the present Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt; they will engage in 16 hustings debates across the country over the next few weeks.  Tory Party members will receive their ballot papers between July 6 and July 8; and the name of the new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister is expected to be announced in the week beginning July 22.

Rounds 2 to 5

In the second round on Tuesday (June 18), Dominic Raab, the hardline Brexiteer who had refused to rule out proroguing Parliament in order to push through a No Deal exit, was eliminated.  In the third round on Wednesday (June 19), the eccentric “wild card” candidate, Rory Stewart – who still supports the Maybot’s deal – was dropped; and in the fourth round on Thursday morning (June 20), the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, was eliminated.  This left three candidates: the Environment Secretary,  Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson – the last-named of whom was in all the rounds far ahead of all the others.  The fifth round, on Thursday afternoon, resulted in Michael Gove being eliminated, even though Gove had been ahead of Hunt in the fourth round.

Gove, who at the beginning of the contest was viewed as one of Johnson’s main rivals, was nonetheless undermined by memories of his back-stabbing behaviour towards Johnson in the previous Tory leadership election in 2016 (he had been the organiser of Johnson’s leadership campaign, but at the last minute had suddenly refused to continue to endorse him and put his own name down for the leadership himself, causing Johnson to pull out).  Gove was further weakened by a confession (after the Daily Mail was about to expose him) at the start of this year’s leadership contest that 20 years ago, when he was Justice Secretary, he had several times taken cocaine.[1]  (The contest became enlivened by a series of admissions from various other candidates to having used cannabis in their youth.  Rory Stewart the “kindly colonial official” empathising with the natives –see Brexit Update 34 — confessed to having smoked a communal opium pipe at a wedding last year in Afghanistan.  Boris Johnson said he thought he might once have taken cocaine in his youth, but he could have been “doing icing sugar”.)[2]

However, there are many rumours that Johnson, fearing that Gove would be a more formidable rival than Hunt, told some of his many supporters to vote tactically for Hunt in order to eliminate Gove.  Gove, like Johnson, advocated and voted for Leave in the 2016 referendum campaign, whereas Hunt, like Theresa May (now regarded as a Remainer at heart who betrayed Brexit) is a born-again Leaver who campaigned and voted for Remain in 2016.  So Johnson has an advantage over Hunt in that he supported Leave in 2016.  Also Gove is regarded as sharper than Hunt in debates.  There is much speculation in the UK media  – fuelled by the very small amount of additional votes that Johnson gained in the final round of parliamentary voting, particularly in comparison with his steadily increasing vote in the other rounds – that Johnson’s team told some of his supporters to vote tactically for Hunt.  After Sajid Javid was eliminated in the fourth round, five of his supporters stated publicly that they would switch their votes to Johnson; but in the fifth round, Johnson’s tally only increased by three votes; in the fourth round he had 157 votes; in the fifth 160.[3]

The Conservative Party Membership

Last August, the number of Conservative Party members was estimated to be 124,000, but it has recently been reported to have gone up to about 160,000, with new members joining in order to vote in the leadership election.  Unlike Labour, which under Corbyn has increased its membership to over 600,000, the Tory Party membership has been decreasing for decades.  In a very informative article in this week’s New Statesman,  Ferdinand Mount comments on those who are left: “polling evidence suggests that the membership rump consists mainly of elderly white males with stern views: hostile to immigrants, to any further loosening of sexual mores and to the EU”.[4]

Up till Friday (June 21), Johnson enjoyed a large lead over Hunt among Conservative voters.  But that was the day that a story broke about a domestic row between Johnson and his  partner, Carrie Symonds, (he is in the process of getting divorced from his wife, Marina Wheeler) that had taken place in the early hours of Friday morning.

Red Wine on the Sofa

According to the Guardian, which broke the story, police were called to Carrie Symonds’s flat by her neighbours, after they heard  shouting, screaming and sounds of smashing crockery and failed to get any response when they knocked on the door.   The Guardian claims to be in possession of a tape recorded by one of the neighbours on a mobile phone.  According to the Guardian, Symonds can be heard shouting repeatedly “get out of my flat” and accusing Johnson of spilling red wine over what was apparently an expensive sofa.  “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt.  You don’t care for money or anything” she is reported to have screamed at him.   Johnson is said to have been trying to calm her down, but she is also reported to have shouted “Get off me”; he is said to have yelled “Get off my fucking laptop”.[5]   Scotland Yard, however, issued a statement:

“The caller was concerned for the welfare of a female neighbour.  Police attended and spoke to all occupants of the address, who were all safe and well.  There were no offences or concerns apparent to the officers and there was no cause for police action.”[6]

For the past three days, this incident has been lead headline news in the UK – putting the US/Iran crisis into the shade.  Why has this domestic row aroused such interest?  First, it came just after Johnson seemed triumphant – he was in the final two, having been the runaway winner all through the parliamentary election; he was rumoured to have secured the opponent he wanted; the polls showed he had a massive lead over Hunt among Tory voters.  But he is so well known for self-destructive behaviour that everyone was expecting some kind of dramatic fall.  Secondly, there is the symbolism.  As the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote:

“When Carrie Symonds is reported to be railing at him for ruining her sofa with red wine, shouting ‘you just don’t care for anything, because you’re spoilt.  You have no care for money, or anything’, she lands a direct hit on everything about him that should give Tory members, and the rest of us, pause for thought: the sense of entitlement, the privilege and the fecklessness.”[7]

There are fears that Johnson could wreck the UK’s economy as heedlessly as he ruined his girlfriend’s sofa.

But will the incident prove fatal to his chances? A poll taken on Thursday (June 20) among Conservative voters showed 55 per cent in favour of Johnson, 28 per cent supporting Hunt.  A poll taken on Saturday shows that, among the general public, Johnson’s rating has fallen by 7 per cent since the Thursday poll, to 29 per cent, while Hunt has gone up four points to 32.  Among Tory voters, Johnson still remains in the lead; but the Saturday poll shows that he is now on 45 per cent, while Hunt is on 34 per cent; so Johnson is now only ahead with Conservative voters by 11 points, whereas on Thursday it was 27.  Nonetheless, a  Comres poll commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph and conducted over Friday and Saturday, while the domestic row story was breaking, shows that among Tory councillors Johnson still enjoys a massive lead – which suggests he is still strongly ahead among the party membership. [8]  So his campaign for leadership seems to be dented but by no means destroyed.  But repercussions from the row continue – most recently with Conservative allegations that the neighbours and the Guardian acted out of political motives.[9]

The Malthouse Compromise

At the first hustings, Johnson refused to comment on the domestic row story, insisting that the audience wanted to hear about his “plans for the country and the party”.  He expressed his policies on Brexit in rather vague terms; but he seems to be hinting at a plan that appears to echo elements of the Malthouse Compromise. In Brexit Update 6, I described the Malthouse Compromise as follows:

“The Malthouse Compromise consists of a Plan A and a Plan B.  Plan A involves replacing the backstop with a free trade agreement, backed up by unspecified technological solutions to avoid customs checks on the Irish border. Plan A would also involve extending the transition period for an extra year until December 2021.

If this doesn’t work, Plan B comes into operation. Plan B is essentially a managed no-deal.  The EU would again extend the transition period for a year.   The UK would pay its agreed financial contributions and honour its commitments on the right of EU citizens living in Britain.  After the  year’s extension to prepare for its departure, the UK would leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms on December 31 2021 or else negotiate a different deal.”

Johnson’s recent comments seem to indicate that he has some version of Plan A in mind.  Thus in the recent BBC debate during the parliamentary leadership contest, he talked about “a solution of the Irish border issue – putting that into the implementation period”. [10] In his speech at the hustings on Saturday, he spoke of solving the Irish border question “in the context of a Free Trade Agreement that we will implement in the implementation period after we come out on October 31.”[11]

However, an EU official is reported to have described the Malthouse Compromise as “the bonkers no-deal plan”[12]; there is no indication that it will be acceptable to the EU, especially as it involves unspecified technological solutions to the border checks problem.

During the BBC debate, Johnson claimed that leaving on October 31 was “eminently feasible”. This was interpreted by some commentators to mean that he was rowing back from a firm determination to take the UK out of the EU on that date, deal or no deal.  But at the hustings on Saturday, Johnson insisted that he will definitely take the UK out on October 31, whatever happens.  In contrast, Hunt’s position is that he, like Johnson, will do his best to negotiate a deal and will take the UK out if that proves impossible; but he adds the proviso that, if he is close to reaching a deal by October 31, he will ask for a short extension in order to finalise it.[13]  This could count against him among Tory members, despite the domestic row issue.

And the latest news today is that Sky News has cancelled a proposed debate between Johnson and Hunt, because Johnson has “so far declined the invitation”.  He has agreed to take part in an ITV debate with Hunt on July 9 (which will be after the voting papers have been sent out to Tory party members).[14]  Johnson’s campaign team are evidently keen to avoid as much as possible further opportunities for their candidate to self-destruct.