John Downing: 'Only an epic screw-up will keep Boris from Downing Street'
From today, there are 135 days left before the next Brexit deadline of October 31. Tonight at 8pm, just after the soap 'EastEnders' ends on BBC television, the remaining candidates to become leader of the UK Conservative Party, and by extension the next UK prime minister, will debate the issues.
The frontrunner, Boris Johnson, is expected to abandon his Scarlet Pimpernel impersonations and take part. He continued his efforts to evade his way to victory by leaving an empty chair on a televised debate on Sunday, and yesterday also failed to show at a parliamentary hustings in Westminster.
By tonight's debate, the list of contenders and, indeed, BBC debate participants, will have been further whittled down. The result of a second vote by the 313 MPs is expected at around 6pm.
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At least one contender will not get the required 33-vote minimum to stay in the race. Speculation turns on international development minister Rory Stewart. Sadly, he may be the most favourable option for Ireland as he speaks favourably of Theresa May's ill-starred EU-UK divorce deal.
Others cited as not being able to cross the 33-vote line are Home Secretary Sajid Javid and former Brexit minister Dominic Raab. There could be four or fewer in tonight's BBC event. We shall see.
Things will pick up pace thereafter with a third round of MP voting tomorrow and two more rounds on Thursday if necessary. By Saturday, the two final names will be ready to go to a ballot of the 160,000 Conservative Party members with the result due to be published on July 22.
Mr Johnson's minders believe he is so far ahead, but keeps his feet so close to his gob that the best campaign strategy is to stay scarce until the pair for the members' ballot are chosen. It is unlikely anything short of a monumental screw-up in tonight's debate would damage his chances now, which are rated by the bookies at as high as 1/6.
Johnson is running on a message of unifying the party and delivering Brexit by October 31 - be it with a deal or without. This message is what has picked up support from across the Leave-Remain divide.
Last Friday, he suggested the Border backstop could be taken out of Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement. Irish Border regulatory checks could then be conducted away from the Border area. The EU leaders will not wear that and their growing impatience adds to the no-deal risk.
On April 11, when EU leaders agreed to the Halloween extension, France's President Emmanuel Macron compromised on demands for an immediate Brexit. Next time, he will have more support and an extension requires unanimous approval. Ireland may be looking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch premier Mark Rutte to deploy emollient skills.
Meanwhile, tonight's debate may really be about who comes second. That is of little interest for those of us watching that October 31 Brexit deadline.