Why Tory members don’t care about the Carrie Symonds row

24 June 2019

8:24 PM

24 June 2019

8:24 PM

This is what a senior member of the cabinet told me this morning about whether Boris Johnson’s prospects of becoming Tory leader and our PM have been seriously harmed by the disclosure that neighbours summoned police to his home after they heard his girlfriend Carrie Symonds shouting at him to ‘get off me’.

Minister: ‘It will take a really gross transgression for Boris Johnson to deflect the faithful, but it’s not beyond him.’

And another minister said: ‘I don’t think it [the leadership contest] has changed one inch.’

For the avoidance of doubt, neither minister is invested in a Johnson victory, and one of them would passionately prefer him to lose.

Are you surprised that all the broadcasts and splash headlines about whether Johnson has the ‘good character to be PM’ are seen as just noise, by those at the heart of the country’s ruling party? Do you think they are wrong?

Having chatted with Tory members over the weekend, my sense is these ministers are spot on – even if that offends your sense of what is proper.

Johnson’s many devotees know that the candidate they simply call ‘Boris’ is always getting into what they see as scrapes. Worse than that, they see this kind of incident as either a leftie and media conspiracy to undermine their hero, or – if they believe what happened – as proving that he is ‘human’, just like them.

Their reactions are analogous to how Trump has shrugged off – both before and after his election – his many transgressions against decency.

There was a cartoon, recalled by the former Labour MP Chris Mullin, that neatly sums up the gap between the media and Tory members. It was about the disgraced former American president Richard Nixon: ‘Look, Nixon’s no dope. If the people really wanted moral leadership, he’d give them moral leadership.’

What the people – or at least many Tory people – apparently really want is to leave the EU. For better or worse, that is where the real action in the leadership contest is taking place – and may continue to do so.

In fact there is one sense in which Johnson’s opponent Jeremy Hunt may come to regret all the attention on Johnson’s personal life, because it means Johnson’s claim that he is best placed to extract the UK from the EU is not receiving the scrutiny it properly deserves.

Johnson insists in his generously remunerated Telegraph column this morning that he is ‘not going to bottle’ Brexit. But whether Johnson is big enough and ugly enough to deliver Brexit is utterly beside the point.

Much more relevant is whether he has the diplomatic and intellectual prowess to break the deadlock.

I asked three acknowledged experts on the challenge ahead, one intimately involved in the negotiations from the EU side, one a close confidant of negotiators on both sides, another a very influential Brexiter.

This is what they said.

EU source:

‘EU leaders will not let themselves be divided by a hardline Brexiter PM when they were not divided by Theresa May.

And the splitting of the EU would not deliver a result. If Boris Johnson wants a deal with a changed Withdrawal Agreement [in order to amend the controversial Northern Ireland backstop], he would need to move all 27 leaders. I think he actually wants to blame the EU for no deal.’

Expert on the negotiations:

‘Johnson was described to me in Brussels last week by a very senior person as the biggest single unifying force the 27 could have [i.e. they will resist rather than bend to Johnson]. This is Hunt’s strongest card.’

Influential Brexiter:

‘To exploit the divisions [between nations on Brexit] would require an alpha team and even then it would be very tricky given the [shortage of] time, official hostility, no majority in parliament, etc.

And Boris won’t have an alpha team, he’ll have a warring court of beta/gamma people.’

To sum up, if the Tory leadership debate were being conducted as an exercise in rationality rather than high emotion, Johnson would first try to demonstrate why so many experts are just wrong when they say he stands very little chance of securing an improved Brexit deal by 31 October.

He would furnish detail, as well as the normal bluster about determination and resolve.

Then, if he failed to convince, he would explain why Hunt and the vast majority of MPs are wrong that the economic and security costs of a no-deal Brexit would be crippling.

And finally, if he stands by his mantra that a no-deal Brexit is better than a further Brexit delay, he would explain how he would secure a no-deal Brexit without dissolving parliament and calling a general election, against the revealed wishes of most Tory members.

These are not questions Johnson can dismiss as irrelevant to an assessment of his ability to lead the country in these dark times.

And presumably even his most slavish of fans would expect a bit more than a ‘trust me, I’m not a bottler’ from him.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog.

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