Why it looks like Boris Johnson is planning to destroy Brexit Party – John McLellan

Insisting only Brexiteers committed to a 31 October departure can hold the top ministerial jobs is a means to make the Brexit Party irrelevant in election, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 25th July 2019, 7:00 am
A general election may backfire but there are no risk-free alternatives (Picture: Getty)

As Donald Trump might say, well whaddaya know... Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a member. And in case anyone is interested, I voted for Jeremy Hunt and in 2016 I voted remain.

Like many other Conservative commentators during the leadership campaign, I pointed out the many well-documented shortcomings of the man who is now our leader in several columns but that doesn’t mean I am about to flounce out because my preferred candidate didn’t win.

It is in the interests of political opponents to attack Scottish leader Ruth Davidson and now ex-Scotland Secretary David Mundell for not distancing themselves from Mr Johnson further, but why would any Conservative Unionist feed the opposition argument that he has no right to be Prime Minister of a United Kingdom which includes Scotland?

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Mr Johnson had not even been to see the Queen and he was being derided as someone who would be bad for Scotland, based on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and throwaway lines from long-forgotten articles, but with the appointment of leave-campaign architect Dominic Cummings as his special adviser, before any of the ministerial baubles were handed out, it looks very like Scotland and the rest of the UK will get a say sooner than later.

Although a snap election was ruled out in the leadership campaign in favour of delivering Brexit first, the problem remains that the EU is still adamant the deal negotiated by now ex-PM Theresa May will not be re-opened and even if it was and even if all hard-Brexiteers accepted a compromise, it’s unlikely Parliament would approve it. And the EU won’t change its position if it thinks Parliament will reject the offer anyway. With suspending Parliament looking less likely by the hour, the only way to unblock the impasse if for parliament to change its view and the only way to do that is to change the membership. In other words, a General Election.

Appointing Mr Cummings and insisting only Brexiteers committed to a 31 October departure can hold the top ministerial jobs is a means to make the Brexit Party irrelevant in election, which if designed to bolster negotiations must by definition come within weeks. As a single-issue pressure group, on what different message could the Brexit party possibly campaign if the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings in the vanguard, fights on an unequivocal commitment to leave on 31 October? The only distinction would be the colour of rosette worn by Nigel Farage.

The risks are obvious. What guarantee is there that Brexit voters will return to the Tory fold? How many previously Labour-voting Brexiteers who were happy to back Mr Farage in an EU election will make the leap to voting Tory in a General Election?

Will enough Remainer Tories switch to the Lib Dems to open the door to hard-left Labour? Presumably Mr Cummings’ first job is to get new numbers crunched as quickly as possible to weigh up the odds.

The most recent YouGov poll estimated 47 per cent of people felt it was wrong to leave the EU compared to 40 who agreed, which means the target in a General Election which becomes a proxy EU referendum would be a very small group – the 12 per cent who don’t know.

Latest UK political voting intentions put the Tories on 25 per cent, down 17 per cent on the 2017 election result, Labour down 21 points to 19, but the Lib Dems up 15.6 to 23. From a UKIP vote of 1.8 in 2017, the Brexit Party’s current 17 shows how important it is for their threat to be neutralised.

We all know the dynamics in Scotland are entirely different, with most recent samples putting SNP support on 39 per cent compared to 37 in the 2017 election; the Lib Dems are only up 5.5 points to 13, but both Conservative and Labour are down 10 to 18 and 17 respectively.

There are no risk-free alternatives, but if the Prime Minister Johnson does call a snap election it needs to be with a clear understanding that another SNP landslide could trigger another independence referendum which will then magnify the Brexit arguments.

But in an election which will be all about Brexit is a core message of “Give us a new mandate to negotiate a better deal” strong enough to take to the country?

Tweaking the deal which nearly got through in April must surely be better than betting the house on a vote which could leave Britain more divided than ever.

If it’s going to happen, it will be no later than 12 September, but whenever it takes place, the next General Election will be like no other.

New Haymarket plan meets predictable opposition

After lying empty for half a century, several owners, a bitter dispute over a “gateway” hotel and other schemes which got nowhere, the latest vision for the Haymarket gap site has attracted predictable opposition from conservationists.

Too bland and not architecturally significant enough, says the Cockburn Association, with which you might disagree if you like glass and to this eye, the proposals are not as good as those which have previously fallen by the wayside.

But the Cockburn also insists the latest owner Quartermile should scrap the plan altogether and replace it with a new goods interchange to reduce congestion as suggested in the council’s City Centre Transformation project.

At the earliest stage, the obvious flaw in the Transformation interchange idea is there are few suitable sites and this plot is without doubt one of them, but to turn it into a big depot needs the developer’s co-operation or for control to be handed over.

Quartermile would have to rip up its plans on the basis that it would be a better investment than flats, offices and a hotel, otherwise, the local authority will have to buy the site at a market rate, which latest estimates put at around £300m.

The irony is Edinburgh Council used to own the site but sold it for £40m to Irish developer Tiger and used the proceeds to fund its equal pay liabilities which, given the mess Glasgow is still in, was a canny bit of business. And unlike the Cockburn Association, Quartermile isn’t a charity.

Lothian Buses cashless at last

Lothian Buses sure knows how to shoot itself in the foot, with the long-awaited introduction of a cash-less payment system, delayed not so much for technical reasons, but the exclusion of children’s tickets. There may be a reason for it, but it’s not one immediately apparent to anyone who buys anything with contactless cards, which these days is virtually everyone. If the system wasn’t designed for all straightforward payments it wasn’t ready to go.

Cricket world mourns Willie Morton

Everyone connected with Scottish Cricket, George Watson’s College and Watsonian sport was shocked by the sudden death of head groundsman and former Scottish cricket international Willie Morton last week at the tragically early age of 58.

The immaculate surfaces across the extensive Myreside estate were a tribute to the meticulous care of Willie and his team in all weathers, which sportspeople from all over the city and beyond were able to enjoy.

As both a rugby club member and a school parent, there has been much change at Colinton Road in recent years but none will be felt quite as deeply as the loss of Willie who, with the groundsman’s house next to the pavilion, was as much a part of the fabric of the place as it was possible to be.

We will all miss him terribly.