Boris Johnson’s behaviour in the Commons last night was clearly part of his strategy to set up a ‘people vs parliament’ narrative ahead of an election. We can debate the rights and wrongs of telling MPs that the best way to honour Jo Cox would be to get Brexit done, but there are also political implications of this.
The Prime Minister’s team has, over the past few weeks, been making contact with Labour MPs to try to persuade them of the merits of supporting a Brexit deal should one come before the Commons. Many of them have been sympathetic: they regret not supporting Theresa May’s deal and are fearful of a no-deal exit. Tories involved in this operation have been careful to mollify and woo the Labourites they’re talking to.
So how does Johnson’s language sit with that? He undoubtedly wound up Labour MPs last night, not so much with his ’surrender bill’ line, but with his tone deaf responses to MPs talking about Jo Cox. This has upset those potentially supportive Labourites to the extent that ministers have been in touch with Downing Street to alert them to individual opposition MPs who might have supported a deal but who are now turning against the Prime Minister.
The reason for this paradox, I understand, is that there is a division between those behind the Prime Minister’s attitude in the Commons, and those leading attempts to broker a deal. Insiders tell me that while Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser, is part of the uncompromising ‘people vs parliament’ strategy, the MP outreach programme is being led by Danny Kruger, the Prime Minister’s political secretary. Kruger has a rather different approach to politics (he’s the man behind David Cameron’s hug-a-hoodie message, for one thing). Kruger and his team of MPs are going to have to work ten times as hard now with angry Labourites if they want to pass a deal.