The applause from the Tory faithful had only just died down when the Minister called. ‘When Boris said ‘We’re leaving on the October 31, come what may’ there was a moment when I thought, ‘Maybe they do have a master plan after all,’ ‘ he joked. ‘But then I remembered – if they have, they’re keeping it very, very secret.’
Perhaps they are. With the hands of the Brexit doomsday clock teetering at one minute to midnight, maybe the Prime Minister will still emerge victorious.
Brussels may capitulate and embrace his ‘double border’ blueprint for replacing the dreaded backstop.
The courts may come to his rescue and rule the Benn Act unenforceable. The putative government of national unity could collapse in an orgy of infighting before it has even been formed.
Boris (pictured) has tried valiantly to deliver on the verdict issued by the 2016 referendum but so far he has failed
But, as things stand, it does not feel like we have entered the final month of the UK’s membership of the European Union. And that means if Boris Johnson is to prevail, he will need to adopt a bold new strategy. He must start telling the British people the truth.
We are probably not going to leave on the 31st. Boris has tried valiantly to deliver on the verdict issued by the 2016 referendum but so far he has failed. His opponents in the judiciary, Parliament and capitals of Europe have proved too strong and too cunning for him.
And there is no shame in that. The electors are not stupid. They can see the games that are being played out right in front of their eyes.
It’s now almost two weeks since a group of parliamentarians stood cheering on the steps of the Supreme Court and bombastically announced they would be ‘getting back to work’ to confront the Brexit crisis.
And what have they achieved? What legislation has been passed, which votes have been won, how many speeches have been delivered that have brought the nation a millimetre closer to ending our Brexit nightmare?
Not one. So having warned us all that the prorogation of Parliament represented the greatest assault on democracy since Charles I, on Tuesday these heroic defenders of liberty will up-sticks for another week and be prorogued again.
If we don’t leave on October 31, people will know precisely who to hold to political account. Just so long as Boris Johnson is honest with them.
They will not blame him for trying and failing. But what they will not forgive is if he is caught lying and failing.
It’s fine for the Prime Minister to wander around exuding his trademark optimism. But there is a growing danger his brave new dawn will prove a false dawn. On Thursday, I sat in the parliamentary press gallery and watched as a succession of Tory MPs heaped praise on his new Brexit offer.
With the hands of the Brexit doomsday clock teetering at one minute to midnight, maybe the Prime Minister will still emerge victorious (file image)
‘I hope the Prime Minister can hear the collective sigh of relief, which tends to indicate that this might be the beginning of the end,’ gushed Victoria Prentis.
And if this does prove to be the end, those sighs of relief will morph into cheers of acclamation.
But if it doesn’t, a roar of anger will be unleashed that will deafen every politician in Westminster, including the occupant of No 10.
If you speak to senior Ministers and their advisers, there are those who still insist that what we are witnessing is all part of Dominic Cummings’s grand design.
That he really has identified a series of legal and constitutional loopholes that will enable the Prime Minister to defeat another Supreme Court challenge and a vote of no confidence.
But the problem is the various parts of that design don’t actually align. We were told prorogation would prevent MPs sabotaging Boris’s strategy. But then they passed the Surrender Act.
Are Priti and Penny set for title fight?
There was tension among Cabinet Ministers at last week’s Tory conference after they learnt they were being allocated different amounts of time for their speeches.
‘Each was given either an eight, ten or 12-minute slot,’ a Tory official reveals, ‘and the people who only had eight were pretty put out.’
As it was, most of the addresses were overshadowed by allegations over the Prime Minister’s private life.
But there was one exception. ‘Priti Patel really landed it,’ a Minister tells me. ‘I had people in my constituency texting me, ‘Did you see her! She was magnificent!’ ‘
A second Minister tells me: ‘This was a breakout conference for Priti. She really cut through. She’s Boris’s heir apparent now.’
Even one of the former Tory rebels admits the Home Secretary is now a power in the land. ‘Any new Brexit deal has to pass the Priti test,’ they explained. ‘She’s the swing vote. If she doesn’t endorse it, it won’t fly.’
Someone else who enjoyed a good Tory conference was former Minister Penny Mordaunt.
‘I saw her walking through the hall,’ an MP reports, ‘and she was being mobbed. She had to stop every couple of feet for selfies. It was like Madonna had turned up.’ If Boris falls under a red Brexit bus, watch out for Priti v Penny.
We were then told this had all been ‘war gamed out’ and it was part of a plan to pit Parliament versus Boris and the People. But we are now being told it actually involves Boris and Parliament joining forces to endorse his new deal and put pressure on the EU to accept it.
And most significantly of all, if the Prime Minister and his aides really have identified a way of exiting by the end of the month, why have they been trying to circumnavigate the entire process by forcing a General Election?
Other Cabinet Ministers claim there is no secret plan but it won’t matter. That if we fail to leave on the 31st, Boris’s pledges will be forgotten and he will be rewarded for having done his best. But that ignores another political fundamental.
In a few months, we will be in the middle of a General Election campaign. And all General Elections ultimately boil down to the same issue – trust.
Boris Johnson has a number of qualities. But he has a trust problem. As the Charlotte Edwardes claims swirled around Tory conference, I was struck by two things.
None of the assembled MPs and delegates I spoke to thought the allegation the Prime Minister had grabbed her thigh 20 years ago would have any significant impact with the voters.
And none of them believed the Prime Minister’s denial that the incident had ever happened.
When the Election comes, Boris Johnson will ask the British people to trust him. He will ask them to trust him to deliver Brexit. He will ask them to trust him to build 40 new hospitals, provide 20,000 new police officers and deliver an effective new immigration system.
And as he does so, his opponents will be filling the airwaves and social media with images of red buses and cries of ‘liar, liar, pants on fire!’
There is only one way Boris will earn people’s trust. And that is by telling the truth. Yes, he may still find a way of outsmarting his enemies in Brussels and Westminster and secure a deal. But this morning that looks a very big ask.
The EU has not yet agreed to even enter the so-called ‘tunnel’ that will mark the beginning of serious negotiations. And if he cannot get a deal, we almost certainly will not be leaving the EU on October 31, come what may.
The optimism and enthusiasm the Prime Minister displayed in his conference speech are to be welcomed. But a nation exhausted by Brexit wants something more. A politician who will look them in the eye and level with them.
If Boris delivers Brexit in four weeks’ time, he will be a national hero. But if he doesn’t, his daily promises to leave by October 31 are creating the biggest hostage to fortune in British political history. And Jeremy Corbyn is waiting in the wings to make hostages of us all.
I understand Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has been placed on ‘resignation watch’ by No 10 after he expressed concern at Boris’s new Brexit proposals. ‘They’re keeping a close eye on him,’ a Minister tells me. For good reason. ‘Julian isn’t happy,’ a friend admits to me. ‘He doesn’t like the way things are going, and he wants to get out. He’d like to leave it all behind and get back to his business.’ Come on Julian, no surrender!