Monday 16 September 2019

Johnson spurs vote fever with impossibly high EU demands

Campaign mode: Boris Johnson spoke to police cadets and pressed the flesh with locals in Birmingham yesterday as he promised to recruit 20,000 more officers to combat crime. Photo: PA
Campaign mode: Boris Johnson spoke to police cadets and pressed the flesh with locals in Birmingham yesterday as he promised to recruit 20,000 more officers to combat crime. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

It's only day four of Boris Johnson's premiership - but already the very air around the Westminster parliament is thick with election speculation.

Many commentators feel that the new UK prime minister has set the bar so high for negotiations with the EU that he must fail. Under this scary scenario, he could then blame calling Britain's third election in five years on a recalcitrant European Union and his own inflexible MPs who are determined to block a calamitous no-deal Brexit by October 31.

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On the other side of the equation, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has stoked the election embers himself by putting his party on a campaign footing and outlining a raft of election promises. But as the UK's third prime minister inside three years, Boris Johnson must look to the experience of his ill-starred predecessor, Theresa May.

She called a snap general election in May 2017 expecting a landslide win. Instead she lost her party's overall majority and became dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party's 10 MPs who further restricted her room for Brexit manoeuvring.

Yesterday, Mr Johnson appaeared to rule out an election before October 31 but, given his record of economy with the truth, his promise can be taken with a pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, his spokesman also stressed that his message to all the EU leaders would be the same as what he had to say in the House of Commons on Thursday. "He wants to do a deal. He will be energetic in trying to seek that deal but the Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected three times by the House of Commons. It is not going to pass," the spokesman said.

"That means reopening the Withdrawal Agreement and securing the abolition of the backstop," the official added.

The response from Brussels has been emphatically negative about Boris Johnson's demands. And there was no surprise in the response from Paris yesterday.

French Europe Minister Amélie de Montchalin stressed that while European capitals were ready to work with the new UK premier, they were adamant the EU-UK "divorce" deal done on November 25 last would not be renegotiated.

"What is still to negotiate is the future relationship," she told France 2 television. "We have to create a working relationship and not get into games, gestures and provocations."

Ireland has also reacted very strongly to Mr Johnson's complete refusal to keep the controversial backstop. Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney followed on from the Taoiseach's strong words on Wednesday. Mr Coveney said the approach was "very unhelpful" and could block a deal.

The UK's new police minister, Kit Malthouse, stoked the election speculation yesterday morning by saying there would be an emergency budget as he gave more details about the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers to step up the fight against crime.

"The prime minister has also announced there's going to be an emergency budget in the autumn which will be designed to stimulate the economy," Mr Malthouse told Sky News.

These comments caught senior UK officials by surprise. They said that an emergency budget was not currently being "planned".

A Downing Street source played down Mr Malthouse's remark as "speculation", while a treasury spokesman said it was up to the chancellor to announce "any fiscal event".

Another example of the current febrile atmosphere in English politics right now came when it emerged Boris Johnson has added "Minister for the Union" to his official job title. This clearly speaks to the fears that a no-deal Brexit could intensify calls for a second Scottish independence referendum following the one which was lost in 2014 by a 10pc margin.

The Labour leader made his demand for a general election at a rally in London.

Mr Corbyn said the new prime minister had "no plan for this country".

He spoke out at a rally in Parliament Square on Thursday night demanding an election. "Never mind the bluster and arm waving, he's got no plan for this country. No plan on Brexit, no plan to rebuild our public services, and no plan to tackle the climate emergency," Mr Corbyn said.

The Labour leader did not spare the rhetoric. "He spent his leadership campaign promising tax giveaways to the richest, and the big corporations. And he's threatening a no-deal Brexit, staking all of our futures on a sweetheart trade deal with Donald Trump that would risk the takeover of our NHS by US corporations," Mr Corbyn added.

Mr Corbyn announced six key non-Brexit pledges around welfare and services which he said would be rolled out by a Labour government.

He also pledged Labour would introduce a £10-an-hour living wage, more NHS spending and 400,000 jobs in a "green industrial revolution".

Though he has a long history of being anti-EU he also moved on Brexit. He said Labour backed a public vote on any deal, and would campaign for Remain against a no-deal or "bad Tory deal".

"You deserve your say," he said emphatically.

Irish Independent

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