1. BORIS YELL SIN
British reporters in Washington yesterday tried, with little success, to ask Boris Johnson about the latest fall-out from his Iran blunder. When he appeared on FoxNews he was instead quizzed on his view of Donald Trump. Boris didn’t hold back in his praise, saying Trump was “a huge great global brand” and “a lot of people relate to” his Tweets. No wonder the FoxNews host said the Foreign Secretary was “a great guest…you are made for television”.
The problem is that Johnson’s gaffe over British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe looks ‘made for’ Iranian State TV. And he’s not out of the woods yet on this one. One ally of the PM tells me that his Iran blunder means “the fuse has been lit” on Boris’s departure and that fuse is still burning down. If the Iranians do indeed increase her jail term, the PM would be loath to offer Tehran another propaganda victory by sacking Boris. But several Tories as well as civil servants think that putting at risk a British national overseas – thanks to a lazy, reckless disregard for precise language – is a bigger sin than anything else he’s done to date. And politically, it’s much easier for the PM to fire Boris over a matter of life and death than any disloyalty over Brexit.
If Nazanin’s jail term were to increase, the clamour from her family for the PM to sack Boris would become intense. Her husband Richard has recorded a powerful vlog for HuffPost in which he urges Boris to accompany him on a trip to Iran to get his wife and daughter home for Christmas. Former Foreign Office chief Peter Ricketts (crucially, also a former National Security Adviser) yesterday said Johnson was not a ‘serious’ enough figure to be Foreign Secretary.
Talk of a wider reshuffle rumbles on, though I still can’t see the PM wanting to do anything before the Budget or even the December EU council. Some around her undoubtedly want her to be bolder and take more risks either late next month or in the New Year. Boris’s scalp would have to be matched by Hammond’s, but scalping either could trigger more names for that magic 48 needed for a vote of confidence in the Tory leader. The Standard yesterday quoted one former minister saying “at least 40” Tory MPs now felt they were in a “leadership crisis”. Conversely, the Times has a new poll showing May’s personal ratings have risen (by one point) since the Fallon sacking. The party is also polling 40% nationally, which is still behind Labour (on 43%) but that’s not at all bad for a Government in apparent chaos.
There was Whitehall chatter yesterday that we may get the conclusion of the Cabinet Office inquiry into Damian Green next week. But ethics chief Sue Gray is hardly independent of Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood and he may not want anything to disrupt the Budget or the EU summit, so it’s possible Green’s fate is timed for the bigger reshuffle.
2. BLOCKBUSTER MOVING
David Davis meets Michel Barnier again today for a lunchtime press conference and all the signs are that this will be another ‘holding’ statement. But Theresa May wants to inject a sense of momentum and has used a Daily Telegraph article to announce Brexit Day of Friday March 29, 2019 will be written into law. The idea that Exit Day was unspecified in the bill was always strange (we hacks raised it at the very first DexEU briefing only to be told not to worry our pretty little heads over it).
More importantly, May also used the article to warn Tory Remainers that she “will not tolerate” attempts to use the EU Withdrawal Bill next week to “slow down or stop” Brexit. That’s the sort of front-foot tone many in No10 think the PM needs to now deploy to get her Government back on track after the distraction of Cabinet exits. Of course, with a wafer-thin majority, May has to use carrots as well as sticks and backbenchers are expecting a concession on Henry VIII powers soon.
And that give-and-take approach is also the key to success in the Brexit talks themselves. Brussels thought May’s Florence speech was just the opening bid on the vexed issue of the ‘divorce bill’ and the FT today suggests her team is looking at ways to “considerably increase the €20 billion she has already put on the table.” Given that cash is our trump card, expect DD and May to demand serious concessions in return.
Perhaps the best thing to read today on Brexit is this blog by former Brexit minister George Bridges. On the key issue of a transition period that will follow Exit Day, he suggests May should be honest and tell everyone that for two years we really won’t be fully ‘out’ of the EU. “Ministers should stop pretending an implementation period will begin at the end of March 2019… More clarity – and honesty – on this is needed, now.”
3. SPEAKER’S CORNER
John Bercow made an appearance last night at Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute and the Q&A delivered some news lines. The Commons Speaker urged people to show some perspective on the current sex harassment allegations sweeping Westminster, pointing out that the MPs’ expenses scandal had affected more MPs.
Speaking just hours after Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones had insisted he’d had ‘no alternative’ but to suspend the late Carl Sargeant over groping allegations, Bercow even appeared to suggest that his death had been “predictable”. “In terms of protection of the frailties of the accused, I think that’s incredibly important in light of what has happened in Wales, but it was predictable” he said. Bercow added that if an MP was going to be “sacked or denied the Whip” after being accused of sexual harassment then “for god’s sake that member is entitled to know of what he or she is accused”.
Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, who has been suspended and claims against him passed to the police, yesterday broke his silence to issue a statement making a very similar point. “I received a call from…