Boris Johnson was empty-chaired (podiumed?) in the Tory leadership debate on Channel 4 that he refused to attend last night. As Jeremy Hunt asked: “If he can’t face five fairly friendly colleagues, how is he going to deal with 27 EU countries?”. But Johnson’s absence did not harm his status as favourite-to-win (in fact, he received another boost with Matt Hancock’s endorsement). The other five candidates vying for second place went ahead and discussed their plans for schools, adult social care and tackling violent crime, all speaking as if they hadn’t been in the party of government over the last nine years and in top positions for that matter.
The most important subject – and the only one that really concerns us, seeing as we know that these Tories cannot be trusted to improve or properly fund our public services – was Brexit. The first televised debate saw each candidate accuse his rivals of lacking realism when it came to their strategy for taking the UK out of the EU. On the ‘hardest’ end of the spectrum, Dominic Raab repeated his backing for the idea of proroguing (suspending) parliament to force through no deal against the will of MPs. On the other end, the darling of centrist Twitter Rory Stewart retained his support for a citizens’ assembly.
Stewart treated us, as usual, to his bin anecdote. Brexit reminds him of “trying to cram a whole series of rubbish bins into the… rubbish bin,” he told viewers. “And my wife said ‘you’re never going to get these three huge bags of rubbish in’. And I was tempted, like Michael, like Dom, to say ‘believe in the bin! Believe in Britain!’ Right? It’s nonsense!”
MPs are divided over which Brexit option is more delusional, a.k.a. “believe in the bin”, than the others. It’s commonly thought that Speaker Bercow will allow MPs another opportunity to block no deal. Anyone in touch with reality can see that reopening the withdrawal agreement at all, let alone before October 31st, is not possible. But Stewart’s plan of persuading the Commons to pass the current withdrawal agreement unchanged, perhaps even getting a citizens’ assembly through, is possibly the biggest lie of them all.
Everything can be classified as “believe in the bin” except Labour’s message: the deadlock must be broken, which will require some form of public vote. The opposition party is bashed for believing that the Tories are going to opt for an election, like turkeys voting for Christmas. But this is actually the most realistic plan.
When Johnson finds it impossible to deliver Brexit before October 31st, he will either have to oversee a referendum or an election. The former could be easier to win, equipped with a powerful ‘tell them again’ slogan, but carries all sorts of risks including MPs organising to take ‘no deal’ off the ballot paper. Tories mostly reckon the latter is inevitable, which is why they’re supporting the leadership candidate they see as most popular with the country. The only question for Labour is whether it goes into that vote as the main party of Remain, as Tom Watson will advocate in a key speech today, or continue backing the least economically damaging version of Brexit.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.