Boris Johnson vows election manifesto will not be explicitly no-deal

PM seeks to reassure Tory MPs who do not want to make hard Brexit party policy

UK prime minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA.

 

Boris Johnson has pledged the Conservatives would not stand on an explicitly no-deal Brexit election manifesto after moderate Tory MPs threatened to revolt.

The move, aimed at maintaining party unity, risks handing an opportunity to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which could split the Leave vote.

The prime minister sought to reassure factions of his party after two members of the government warned that at least 50 MPs, including three cabinet ministers, had baulked at the prospect of making the hardest of Brexits party policy at the next election.

Mr Johnson made the pledge at a meeting on Wednesday with members of the One Nation caucus, which represents approximately 80 moderate Tory MPs. He told them he would “absolutely not” pursue no-deal as the primary policy in the next election, contrary to the views of some allies, according to those with knowledge of the meeting.

The grouping, led by former minister Damian Green, asked to see the prime minister following a briefing from a Downing Street official earlier this week that claimed Mr Johnson would back the hardest of Brexits in any future poll in order to win over voters who might back Mr Farage’s group.

As hopes fade of a deal with the EU, Mr Johnson is expected reluctantly to seek a delay to Brexit, a move that is likely to precipitate a general election.

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Spectator message

A message from a Downing Street aide, widely believed to be Mr Johnson’s most senior adviser Dominic Cummings, that was sent to the Spectator earlier this week, said that, in a bid to marginalise the Brexit party, the Tories would have to “fight the election on the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’.”

Mr Johnson distanced himself from this view on Wednesday and insisted the government’s policy remained “completely focused” on striking a Brexit deal. “Listen to me, not the briefings”, he told MPs in the meeting.

The Tory election manifesto is instead expected to contain a similar policy to the 2017 election, where the party pledged to broker a new agreement with the EU and only opting for leaving without a deal if talks collapse once again. It is also expected to contain a time limit of a few weeks or months for striking a new deal.

Farage boost

By running on this platform, Mr Johnson will present an opportunity to the Brexit party. Mr Farage has said he would stand candidates down at an election only if Mr Johnson explicitly backed a no-deal exit. His party has otherwise pledged to run in all 650 parliamentary constituencies, even if it risks splitting the pro-Brexit vote and hands victory to Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates.

Tory strategists believe Mr Farage’s party would receive a bounce of at least five points in an election if the government failed to take the UK out of the EU on October 31st.

Mr Johnson also reiterated his pledge to the One Nation MPs that he would not strike an electoral pact with Mr Farage.

Those MPs who had indicated that a manifesto with a purely no-deal policy would be problematic to support included Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, Robert Buckland, justice secretary, and Julian Smith, Northern Ireland Secretary.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is set to convene a Saturday sitting of the House of Commons for the first time since 1982 on October 19th, with MPs gathering for what is likely to be a decisive moment in the Brexit saga.

The prime minister is hoping to secure a Brexit deal at an EU leaders’ summit on October 17-18th, although the chances of an agreement are receding.

Whatever happens at the European Council in Brussels next week, MPs will gather at Westminster on October 19th for the first Saturday sitting in the Commons since Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019