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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "ToryDiary"

Johnson’s August 4) Who would run an election campaign? After yesterday’s Government defeat, the question is pressing.

In the aftermath of the last general election, this site ran one of its most comprehensive exercises. It was a three-part audit of the Conservative election campaign (see here, here and here).  Central to it was to the fact that Theresa May didn’t lost her majority simply because of the manifesto.  The rustiness of the CCHQ machine was a significant contributing factor.  Perhaps it was inevitable, given the calling of a snap election, that the machine would not be oiled, glistening and ready to go – as it had been, pretty much, two years earlier.

Yesterday’s Government defeat in the Commons only strengthens our repeated view that a general election in the autumn is likely.  On one side of Johnson will be Philip Hammond, Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Greg Clark, David Lidington – and perhaps other former Cabinet Ministers vehemently opposed to No Deal.  On the other will be the Spartans, no less opposed to No Brexit by October 31.

One group or the other will come for Johnson in the event of his not being able to agree a deal with Brussels, depending on how he reacts and what he does.  Any such deal is unlikely to pass the Commons in any event.  Theresa May is going because hers failed to do so three times.

All this being so, who will be in charge at CCHQ?  The answer isn’t: whoever Johnson appoints as his Party Chairman.  (We presume that he will shuffle the present occupant, Brandon Lewis, because that’s what new leaders tend to do.)  The experience of general elections in recent times is that the Chairman, come an election campaign, is more like a Chairman than a Chief Executive – and arguably not even that.

In 2005, the Chief Executive figure was Lynton Crosby.  In 2010, there wasn’t one: responsibility for the campaign was divided up between Steve Hilton, George Osborne and Andy Coulson.  It misfired; David Cameron failed to win a majority – and so turned to the Liberal Democrats.  Tim Montgomerie, then this site’s editor, published a general election review.  So did Lord Ashcroft: see his Minority Verdict.

By 2015, Cameron and Osborne had learned their lesson – and so brought Crosby back.  That year, he was ready, and pulled off a spectacular electoral coup, helping to deliver a Conservative majority.  In 2017, as Mark reported, he wasn’t: there simply wasn’t time to amass the data that had helped to swing the election two years earlier.  Nor was Crosby – or anyone else – clearly in charge.  The campaign model was more like 2010 than 2015.

So the big question that follows is: if not Crosby, if there is an autumn contest, then whom?  Replying that the CCHQ team will run any campaign itself is not a convincing answer.  For the fact is that for the Conservative Party has become used to outsourcing its general election campaigns.

Who would do the data and polling?  How would the Party deal with Labour’s presence in social media – or with Remainers pushing the Liberal Democrats?  What about third party endorsements and campaigning, so helpful to Jeremy Corbyn only two years ago?  Or getting candidates in place in the right marginal seats – and who knows what these would be in a four-way contest with Brexit undelivered?  Or delivering a Team 2015-type exercise?

Even with the threat of Corbyn, could enough money be raised in time?  These questions only scrape the surface.  There seems to be no prospect of Johnson calling on Dominic Cummings, and Crosby himself may not be available: this long-term ally of Johnson’s has been largely absent from the membership stage of this leadership contest. Mark Fullbrook, his partner at Crosby Textor, has been in charge.  We would rather not have to write another 2017-style election review in the autumn.  But as matters stand, the prospect looks more likely than otherwise.

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What Johnson will be like as Prime Minister

Boris Johnson has never prepared himself properly, which means his whole life has been a preparation for being unprepared.

But how should the rest of us prepare ourselves for the Johnson prime ministership which now appears almost certain to begin in the middle of next week?

He possesses such a prodigious gift for attracting attention that correspondents from around the globe ask me, because I wrote a life of Johnson, what kind of a Prime Minister he will be.

They wish to know about his ideology, even about the ideological differences within the Johnson family, and have noted with concern the reports that he has no grasp of detail, and no respect for facts, so is unfit for high office.

It occurs to me that a better place to start is with a letter written in Hampstead by John Keats in December 1817, at the age of 22:

“several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Johnson cannot be understood by those who demand certainty. The fact-checking mentality, however meritorious it may appear to those who adopt it, is a fatal hindrance in Johnson Studies.

So is the attempt to define him in ideological terms. He has not surrendered his freedom of judgment to an ideology. Like most of us, he is a mixture of instincts, prejudices and flashes of insight, contradictory impulses shaped by an evolving tradition of behaviour and the discovery of what works.

His imagination is always in play. Thoughts, feelings, jokes, images and original turns of phrase crowd in upon his fertile mind. He is a man of Negative Capability.

To the ideologist this sounds recklessly fluid. To the fact-checker it looks like a licence to make things up, i.e. to tell lies.

And to the expert, who yearns to tell us what we can and cannot do, it seems childish.

Like everyone else, I have no way of knowing how Johnson’s prime ministership will turn out. It could be triumph or disaster, or a mixture of the two.

In historical terms, disaster is the more likely outcome. Most Prime Ministers end up being blamed for something.

But there is often an initial period when things go well (cf Blair, Eden, Chamberlain), and Johnson starts with the advantage of low expectations. Fact-checkers, ideologists and experts already find his approach to politics intolerable.

So do commentators as eminent as Matthew Parris, Max Hastings and Bruce Anderson. They regard him (I paraphrase) as an adventurer, a clown, a rogue, an embarrassment.

They wax so vehement they sound blinded by anger, and do him the service of setting the bar so low he may exceed it.

We have just seen, on the far side of the Atlantic, an example of the futility of denunciation. American moralists compete to pass the severest judgment on Donald Trump.

Yet Trump won the election, and has not yet been a complete disaster. The moralists who wrote him off can still expect eventual vindication, but have had meanwhile to endure some painful surprises, including the discovery that millions of Americans have the impudence to laugh at their distress, and to take a wicked delight in doing so.

Johnson is not the same as Trump. Our next Prime Minister is better educated, and less given to sowing enmity. I realise that Remainers who have not forgiven Johnson’s role in the EU Referendum will disagree with the second half of that sentence.

But as Buzzfeed reported a year ago, Johnson is impressed by the President:

 “I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

Johnson is about to go in bloody hard, and people will find it difficult to tell how serious he is, and whether he really means it.

For much of the time, he may not know himself. Brexit is a negotiation in which you have to advance and retreat according to circumstance, not chain yourself to some fixed position which proves untenable.

There will, he says, be “creative ambiguity” about the £39 billion we are going to pay the EU. He will not deny that we may, in law, be obliged to hand over a large chunk of that money, but he will create uncertainty about when, if ever, Brussels is going to get paid.

At the same time, he will seek to marshal public opinion behind his position. This factor, so important since the 1820s, still tends to be downplayed by members of the Establishment who believe themselves to be in possession of superior knowledge.

If Johnson advances the proposition that we should not pay until we are given a fair deal, the public is likely to side with him, however much the experts insist this withholding of payment simply cannot be done.

Peter Foster, Europe Editor of The Daily Telegraph, reports on Twitter that “TeamBoris by all accounts is in chaos”, with “a vipers’ nest of competing factions all vying” for his ear.

In my view, that is an exaggeration. But Katy Balls of The Spectator recently provided a helpful list of eight different groups which consider themselves entitled to the new Prime Minister’s ear.

Those who feel they are losing that contest will let their dismay be known, which will make it harder to read Johnson’s intentions and work out what his bottom line is, which is as he would like it.

Here, it should be remembered, is a man who is unscrupulous enough to employ experts of his own. He did so at City Hall, but wasted his first six months because with a few exceptions, he had not yet identified the experts he needed.

The Mayor of London serves a fixed term, so could afford to do that. The Prime Minister has an unfixed term. If Johnson wastes his first six months in Downing Street, they will be his last six months.

He is well aware of this fact, and has a better understanding than in 2008 of the capabilities of his colleagues, having served with a number of them in Cabinet.

The situation is fraught with danger, and there in the spotlight will be Johnson. It is a position he has often occupied since the age of 17, and usually though not invariably it suits him.

Trump’s popularity with a section of the American public proceeds partly from his gifts as an entertainer. He is a more practised performer on reality TV, and on Twitter, than the rest of the Republican contenders put together, and uses that ability to set the agenda.

Johnson’s success will depend on his ability to do the same, outflanking the Establishment by mobilising the country. He is not yet a good parliamentarian, something which generally takes far more time than he has devoted to it.

But he is a star performer with the wider public, able to transform the atmosphere when he enters a dull shopping centre on a quiet Wednesday afternoon.

His critics will regard his use of this talent as vulgar and unparliamentary, but his prime ministership will be immeasurably strengthened if he can carry the public with him, persuade them to back his version of Brexit, and put the Conservative Party in a position to win a general election.

We live in a free country. That remark used often to be made when someone had made a remark in questionable taste. One suspects that during the Johnson prime ministership, we shall be hearing it pretty often.

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Johnson’s August 3) Delivering campaign pledges – in so far as he can without a durable majority

It is now overwhelmingly likely that Boris Johnson will be the next Conservative Party leader and become Prime Minister.

He may well face a no confidence vote in September, and the Brexit extension expires at the end of October in any event.

So he and his new team will have to hit the ground running in August. We continue our series on what he should do during that month and late July before the Commons is due to return on September 3.

– – – – – – – – – –

According to our weekly updated list, Boris Johnson has made some 25 policy pledges during the Conservative leadership election.  In the probable event of a general election in the autumn, he won’t be able to deliver on many of them.  And he will soon have a working majority of only three in any event.

Which surely rules out a Special Budget in September.  It would have to contain more provisions for No Deal, and wrapping them up in this way would only encourage MPs to vote them down.  He would do better to try any that he needs on the Commons piecemeal.

MPs would also vote down any tax cuts “for the rich” – a category who they would collectively argue includes those who pay the higher rate of income tax, the threshold of which Johnson has promised to raise.

It would be impossible in effect to cut income tax rates in time for a snap election anyway, though the Commons might nod through a rise in the national insurance threshold for lower paid workers, another of his pledges.

But just because Johnson can’t do everything – or even anything much that requires a Bill – doesn’t mean that he can only do nothing.

Governments have greater discretion on spending than tax.  So, for example, he could start to deliver on increasing funding per pupil in secondary schools and raising police numbers.  That would come in handy with an autumn election looming.

The latter move would go hand in hand with a battle with Chief Constables and others over the best use of new resources.  Voters want to see more police on the streets and more use of stop and search.  Johnson’s new Home Secretary should pile in.

And while he will have little legislative room for manoeuvre, he will be able to propose some relatively uncontentious Bills for September – settling the status, for example, of EU citizens.

Then there are measures that he could announce the new Government will not proceed with, as well as those that he wants to proceed with.  Theresa May is providing a growing list of the former.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he should take an axe to parts of her legacy programme – including, as Henry Hill has argued, the hostage to fortune that is the proposed Office for Tackling Injustices.

He will also want to show a direction of travel on some major policy issues.  We do not believe that refusing to commit to a reduction in immigration is sustainable.  As a starting-point to establishing control, he could do a lot worse than take up the Onward proposals floated on this site yesterday by Mark Harper.

There is a limited amount that the new Government will be able to do a in single month – not least when the new Prime Minister is bound to be out of London for parts of it, Parliament isn’t sitting, there is a new Brexit policy to get into shape, and the threat of a no confidence vote in September.

What Johnson can do is form a team, shape a Cabinet – of which more later – begin the Brexit negotiation’s new phase, and show what his priorities are: police, schools and infrastructure, with a particular stress when it comes to the latter on the Midlands and the North.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Johnson’s August 2) Finding support among opposition MPs – or at least trying to – before any no confidence vote

It is now overwhelmingly likely that Boris Johnson will be the next Conservative Party leader and become Prime Minister.

He may well face a no confidence vote in September, and the Brexit extension expires at the end of October in any event.

So he and his new team will have to hit the ground running in August. We continue our series on what he should do during that month and late July before the Commons is due to return on September 3.

– – – – – – – – – –

That no confidence vote may come next week, in the wake of the declaration of the leadership election result, though this is on balance unlikely.

But whether it does or not, it is worth beginning to think through the arithmetic, as Dominic Walsh has done in the New Statesman.

It is probable that in the wake of the Brecon by-election, as Walsh says, the Government will have an effective majority of three.

That would be 311 Tory MPs plus ten DUP MPs: so a maximum of 321 of these MPs would face a maximum of 318 other MPs.

We do not know how many Conservative MPs would refuse to support Johnson, or even oppose him, in a no-confidence vote in the Commons.

The new Downing Street team should, however, look closely at the 15 independent MPs: of these, two abstained in January’s no confidence debate: Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock while one, Sylvia Hermon, voted with the Government.

Back in January, there were only eight independents.  One of these, Fiona Onasanya, is no longer an MP. That leaves seven – Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins, Jared O’Mara and Stephen Lloyd, plus the three named above.

To them, we can add Ian Austin, Nick Boles and Chris Williamson; and then Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Sarah Wollaston – about half of the original Change UK group.

Then there is the other part of that group: what now calls itself the Independent Group for Change (do keep up): that’s Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Joan Ryan and Anna Soubry.

That raises the total of votes in play to 20.  But it is not quite the end of the story.

For there is a small group of Labour MPs who sometimes vote with the Government on Brexit.  Their numbers rises and falls, but as recently as June eight of Jeremy Corbyn’s backbenchers went into the same lobby as the Government to oppose a move headed by their party to take control of Commons business.

They were: Kevin Barron, Ronnie Campbell, Jim Fitzpatrick, Caroline Flint, Stephen Hepburn, Kate Hoey, John Mann, Graham Stringer.  Which brings us to 28.

Now every single one of these MPs might well vote against a Johnson Government in the event of a no confidence vote.

The new Prime Minister himself might not be the best person to deal directly with any of them.

But his Downing Street Team, or those Conservative MPs in place, might want to talk in particular to Austin and Hoey, and just conceivably Barron who, like Hoey, is retiring.

And that’s before taking into account any other Opposition MP who could sit on their hands rather than vote in such a way as to make an imminent Corbyn Government likely.

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Johnson’s August 1) He must spend some time in Scotland

It is now overwhelmingly likely that Boris Johnson will be the next Conservative Party leader and become Prime Minister.

He may well face a no confidence vote in September, and the Brexit extension expires at the end of October in any event.

So he and his new team will have to hit the ground running in August. We open today a brief series on what he should do during that month and late July before the Commons is due to return on September 3.

– – – – – – – – – –

Today’s papers suggest that the new Prime Minister will visit Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron – it apparently isn’t yet decided in what order – and seek to visit Donald Trump early in search of a UK – US trade deal.

He will also have to go to Dublin to make personal contact with Leo Varadkar – testing and perhaps fruitless though such a trip may be.

One can begin to see from the number of journeys that Johnson will have to make from Downing Street that he will need a strong team, with perhaps a Deputy Prime Minister or First Secretary of State in place, and certainly a capable Minister at the Cabinet Office, to run much of the Government’s new domestic policy in his absence.

The new Prime Minister shouldn’t be out of London more than is absolutely necessary – after all, the Iran standoff may suddenly flare up, in the manner of August foreign policy crises – but he will surely have to find time for a trip to Scotland.

There is evidence that his ratings in Scotland are weak; much of the Scottish Conservative Party will have voted for Jeremy Hunt; Ruth Davidson is not a fan, the SNP would undoubtedly use any No Deal Brexit to make a new push for Scottish independence – and Scottish Parliamentary elections are due in 2021.

In short, the threat to the Union “hasn’t gone away, you know”, and the new Prime Minister must seek to head some of the trouble off.  His main downside seems to be that he is seen in parts of Scotland as quintessentially English figure.

But the same could be said of almost any Tory successor to Theresa May, including Jeremy Hunt.  And some Scottish MPs and MSPs have broken for the front-runner.  Ross Thomson, Colin Clark, Douglas Ross and Andrew Bowie are now signed up.

The last is May’s PPS, and will be a useful guide to Scotland for the new Prime Minister.  Thomson is a long-standing supporter.  One of Johnson’s first decisions will be what to do with David Mundell, the experienced Scotland Secretary, who along with several of his colleagues backed Michael Gove.

Three MSPs  – Michelle Ballantyne, Margaret Mitchell and Oliver Mundell – are also doing so, though they are very much in a minority in their group.  Mundell explained his reasons recently on this site.

Johnson has dropped his original wish to recast the Barnett formula, and will now seek to be styled Minister for the Union as well as Prime Minister.

But he will need to do much more than that if he is help bolster the Union early – and rebuff claims of indulging in mere Red-White-And-Bluewash.

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Is the Official Secrets Act fit for purpose?

As rival newspapers band together to scrag Neil Basu, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, let this site nervously venture out to make a case for him.  When he warned the media that they could be committing an offence by publishing more of Kim Darroch’s diplomatic cables – as the Mail on Sunday gleefully does this morning – he may have technically been correct: under the terms of the Official Secrets Act, newspapers are in breach of the law if they publish material that is “damaging”.

And if publishing cables sent by our man in Washington isn’t damaging to the confidentiality that our diplomats require, you may ask, then what on earth is?  This point of view dismisses the united editorial voices of today’s Sunday papers as special pleading – and views with contempt the politicians, such as both Conservative leadership contenders and Matt Hancock, who are today sucking up to the media, presumably in hope of softer treatment.

However, the newspapers aren’t necessarily wrong simply because it is in their commercial interest to publish leaks, and our trade has a persuasive case to make.  In this instance, it falls into two main parts.

First, it can be claimed that the Darroch cables aren’t “damaging” in the slightest: that it is not as though they contained details of, say, the workings of our nuclear weapons systems, or the whereabouts of MI5 and MI5 agents.  Rather, the argument continues, all that they contain is political anaylsis – and not very original analysis at that.  So Donald Trump was driven in spurning the Iran settlement to spite Barack Obama, who drew it up.  Well, knock us down with the proverbial feather.  We are shocked, shocked, as Captain Renault puts it in Casablanca.

The second point comes if the first fails to persuade – and, in fairness to the Government, some of the material in cables seems to be more than commonplace.  For example, some of the material in last weekend’s leaks to the Mail on Sunday concerned the western worlds response to Iran’s nuclear programme.  And as that country’s attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz reminds us, lives are at stake when policy towards Iran comes into play.

The deeper case for publication of the cables is that there is a public interest in knowing the disposition and outlook of our diplomatic service towards Trump – and, more broadly, what it, combined with what we know from elsewhere, tells us about the worldview of our civil service.  As this site has said recently, the civil service must necessarily have a take on the world: while being impartial, it can never be and has never been neutral.

Michael Quinlan, Charles Farr, Michael Palliser, Simon Fraser, Nicholas Macpherson: the civil service is and has been stuffed full, past and present, by people with views – some of which, as in the latter two cases, become clear after they have retired.  The public interest in this case is whether or not Darroch’s take on Trump was partial, out of date, not as widely-informed as it might have been, or corroded by his pro-EU instincts.

In essence, this is a public interest defence – and the public interest is a well-recognised concept.  After all, the Official Secrets Act does not exist in isolation.  It is balanced by other laws and by important principles.  It is possible both to believe that Darroch should have Ministers’ full backing in telling truth to power as he saw it, while simultaneously asing whether or not he was as well-sighted to do this as some say.

A catch with this line of thinking is that the definition of public interest in the Official Secrets Act is very narrow indeed.  Essentially, it is that the public interest is whatever the Government of the day says that it is.  There is a history to this part of the Act.  In 1985, a civil servant called Clive Ponting was charged with offences under its terms after leaking information about the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.

The jury was directed by the judge that the public interest was, as above, whatever the Government says that it is.  It none the less acquitted Ponting: essentially, its members defied the judge and, as outlined to it, the law.  So the Act was overhauled in 1989, and that definition put on to the statute book.  Our readers are unlikely to sympathise with Ponting.  But we should all ask ourselves whether we would want a Jeremy Corbyn-led government having legal backing for its view of the public interest.  Or, frankly, any government at all.

Now let us return from theory to the rough, real world of politics.  As the row over Basu’s words indicates, the Government wouldn’t dream of prosecuting the Mail on Sunday in this case.  The Met is already backpeddalling.

For in the turbulent arena in which politics and journalism meet, neither Theresa May, in her last days as Prime Minister, let alone Boris Johnson, in the first days of his, is going to get into the grandmother of freedom-of-the-press ding-dongs with Fleet Street – especially with the Brexit negotiations moving towards another climax, and the prospect of an election in the autumn.

But the fact is that we have concocted a typically British fudge where official secrecy is concerned.  There is a DSMA system (formerly D-notices): the voluntary code under which material perilous to national security is kept out of the public domain, or should be.  Next, there is the idea of “damaging” information set out in the Act.  Then there is a definition of public interest that not all juries will swallow.  And we haven’t even got into human rights legislation.  None the less, one point should be clear by now: Basu isn’t right just because the papers say he’s wrong.

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The next Prime Minister should scrap the Office for Tackling Injustices

Now that it has happened, it feels as if there was something inevitable about Theresa May’s scramble for a legacy leading her to try to create at least one new quango.

They’re the ultimate ‘legacy’ vehicle: a publicly-funded body which will continue to pursue your agenda – proudly independent of political oversight from your usurpers or political opponents – long after you have left office.

Even as an example of the genre, however, the Prime Minister’s mooted ‘Office for Tackling Injustices’ is an eye-poppingly bad idea. As Guido Fawkes points out, as currently planned it would simply duplicate a range of data-gathering functions already performed, at public expense, by bodies such as the Office for National Statistics.

But its worse than that. Like so much of May’s “burning injustices” agenda, ‘OfTI’ implicitly prejudges its own data. Its very name conflates disparate outcomes – which can arise from a huge range of factors, not all of them linked to discrimination – with ‘injustice’. Moreover, since these trends will take decades to solve (to the extent that they are soluble or need solving) its reports will inevitably and indefinitely be a stick with which to beat future Conservative governments and apply leverage to Labour’s levelling-down agenda.

Yet the problems with OfTI go beyond the specific flaws in the design of one particular quangos. This last gasp of Mayisme reflects a broader, deeply problematic trend of politicians outsourcing responsibility to the quasi-independent sector.

Another recent example of this is Jeremy Hunt’s idea of an independent infrastructure commission to make decisions on matters such as airport expansion. Whilst it is easy to understand where this comes from – successive governments have proven utterly woeful at making big calls in this area – it is nonetheless deeply flawed. Not only would it be wrong in principle for voters to have nobody to hold to account for such decisions, but experience suggests that politics would get in the way in any event. Just look at how MPs reacted when the independent body they created to set their pay recommended an increase.

Over the past few years I have written about several dimensions of the quango problem, such as how it erodes political accountability and ministerial responsibility, and suggested possible remedies such as making quango appointments explicitly political.

But I have also written about the fact that Conservatives ought to be much more willing to reverse bad measures when they get the chance, rather than just resigning themselves to any policy which makes it over the line.

To that end, May’s successor should not just kick OfTI “into the long grass”, as the Sun reports. They should scrap it – and get a taste for scrapping quangos whilst they’re at it.

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Hunt is cooler under fire in the Neil interviews. But how much difference will they really make?

Conservative Party members will vote in this leadership election, first, for the candidate they consider more likely to deliver Brexit and, second, more likely to win a general election – whether Britain has or hasn’t left the EU by the time it takes place.

Last weekend’s YouGov poll, reports from the ground and our own survey this week suggest that they believe that this person is Boris Johnson. Furthermore, enough activists have already returned their ballot papers to guarantee his victory, if our survey was correct.

Finally by way of introduction, many Party members appear to think that the media is biased against Johnson’s candidacy.

This helps to explain why those polls, surveys and reports suggest that he has survived both his domestic row and the Kim Dalloch resignation unscathed.

It’s necessary to set out that background before turning to what any floating Tory activist viewer will have made of this evening’s Andrew Neil interviews.

For Neil cannot be written off as a member of a media liberal elite. The former Sunday Times Editor and Spectator Chairman is well known to be firmly right of centre.

He is also a formidably focused and forensic interviewer who does his research, has a hulking TV presence, and cannot easily be evaded – let alone bullied and blustered.

As the editors of the site predicted in this week’s ConservativeHome Tory Leadership Election podcast, Neil zeroed in not primarily on policy but on character.

Jeremy Hunt was assailed as a flip-flopper; Johnson as an untrustworthy chancer. Neil duly scored hits on both during his half hour probing each.

Hunt had to explain why he is willing to tolerate No Deal when he is on record as saying it will be a catastrophe. Johnson was counter-punched by Neil on the detail of how his plan to replace the backstop would work.

Our take is that Hunt was calmer under fire and more convincing on the economic detail – which Neil is interested in and on which he partly concentrated.

Johnson, perhaps for the first time during the campaign, shifted in his chair, was headed off from diversions, and eventually showed signs of losing his cool.

Floaters may not have been reassured by the way in which Neil skewered Johnson on Paragraph 5) C of Article XXIV of GATT.

Just as well for Johnson, then, that most Conservative members are set to vote for him regardless; that most of these may even have done so already…and that many others still will have been distracted by a confrontation elsewhere: Federer v Nadal.

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33 per cent? 45 per cent? 71 per cent? What’s the true leadership election turnout?

The results of our latest survey of Party members, published yesterday, appear to have produced an interesting reaction.

This week’s survey asked for the first time how many members have already voted. Seventy-one per cent of those on our panel say they have cast their vote, which if the voting intentions are accurate would make it mathematically impossible for Jeremy Hunt to win via a late surge.

Shortly after that finding was published a range of leaked official turnout figures started to crop up. Beth Rigby of Sky News was told the figure was ‘less than half’ by three sources, including one who claimed the figure was lower than 33 per cent. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg had been tipped off sufficiently firmly to assert that ‘Fewer than half of Tory members have so far voted in the leadership contest and sent back their ballot to party HQ – the assumption that they would all make up their mind in a flash has turned out to be wrong’. Francis Elliott of The Times has also been told ‘fewer than half’.

In short, there is quite some discrepancy. At one end is our survey figure of 71 per cent. At the other end is that Rigby source claiming somewhere below 33 per cent. And the other Rigby sources, Kuenssberg’s source and Elliott’s source, who say ‘fewer than half’ are in the middle somewhere – let’s assume around 40-49 per cent.

The reasons such a discrepancy might arise are interesting in their own right, but the truth is also politically important. It alters the tone and nature of the rest of the contest, if you believe either that most selectors have voted or most are still up for grabs.

The source of the numbers is key. It seemed likely from Rigby and Kuenssberg’s reports that their figures had come from inside the Conservative Party’s structure. Electoral Reform Services are the outside company contracted to run the leadership ballot, and while the election is formally overseen by the 1922 Committee, ERS’ contract is with – and bills paid by – the Conservative Party itself. So it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that ERS would provide regular progress reports on the running of the ballot to its client – not, of course, on how people are voting (the votes for each candidate are yet to be counted), but on whether people are doing so, whether ballot papers are being successfully received by post, and so on. On initially hearing the BBC and Sky numbers yesterday, I assumed that the figures were from just such a progress report, and were therefore most likely to be leaking from somewhere inside CCHQ or somebody in turn briefed by them.

Elliott’s report in The Times today confirms this assumption to be correct, specifying the source as ‘the internal turnout assessment passed to CCHQ from the Electoral Reform Society’.

By contrast, the ConservativeHome survey is a survey of Party members on our panel – 1,319 of whom answered the turnout question.

Anecdotally, we have other sources who echo it. An experienced organiser within the Johnson campaign tells us that in their area the Get Out The Vote operation has so far turned out 75 per cent of Johnson supporters. A Cabinet minister who has been following their local members’ decision-making estimates association turnout to be 80 per cent. A senior member of the voluntary party estimates the national figure to be around 70 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, we believe our figure to be closer to the truth than reports of only a third, or a minority, of votes having been cast, and it seems that various people closely engaged with the process tend to agree.

But the discrepancy still exists, and must be accounted for. How has it arisen, and might it be possible to navigate the various numbers to get at what is really going on?

We can dismiss the baseless allegations of untruth that have become all-too common. We do not know if any of the journalists reporting the contents of an ERS briefing have seen a document, or simply been told of it, but there’s no reason to believe that they are doing anything other than accurately reflecting information from sources they trust. Let’s engage with all the numbers on the basis of good faith.

Looking at our figure first, are there factors which could lead the ConservativeHome survey figure to be too high?

Bluntly, yes: it’s a survey, not a weighted poll, and by definition a Party member reading this site and subscribed to our panel is likely to be somewhat more politically engaged than the average member. Plus, we’re sending them regular surveys about the leadership election, which could spur some to vote by the simple effect of reminding them.

We won’t be catching negative answers from people who are ill, on holiday, et cetera. And anyone getting two ballot papers – as a member of two associations – but obeying the rules and only voting once will appear as a voter in our numbers but would only appear as 50 per cent turnout (one vote cast, the other not) in the ERS/CCHQ figures.

But even after considering those selection effects, the fact remains that our survey’s findings about opinions within the Conservative grassroots tend to map pretty closely to YouGov’s polling of the membership, so the panel doesn’t seem to be so wildly disproportionate as to account for discrepancies as large as those listed above.

So might there be factors which make the reported ERS figures an underestimate of the true turnout? Again, yes there are.

First, the ERS reports to CCHQ are effectively sampling an earlier stage of the election than our survey. It’s a postal ballot, so included in our figures are people who have recently posted their vote who won’t appear on the ERS tally until their ballot papers have been delivered, separated from personal data (eg the donation slips which were sent out at the same time) and tallied up. There could be a lag of two or three days in that process, which is not inconsiderable in the course of a week’s voting time.

Then there’s the question of how often the ERS submit these reports, and what data they are compiled from. If they’re daily, do they use the tally from the previous day’s postal delivery? Or are they less than daily? Again, this is a question of when these snapshots effectively date from.

We also don’t know when the reports being cited were submitted to CCHQ – they might be from yesterday (ie Wednesday’s tally data) or earlier. Indeed, that could even account for the difference between ‘less than a third’ and ‘under half’. If Rigby’s lower end source was citing earlier numbers than those who gave a mid-range number to her, Kuenssberg and Elliott, they could both be accurate but for different points in the last week – just as our survey, conducted on Wednesday, will include voters who won’t make it into the ERS tally until today or tomorrow.

There’s another effect that I suspect is at play. We’ve all put a letter in an envelope, stamped and addressed it, then left it on the side until we next know we’ll be going past a post box. There are likely to be quite a lot of Conservative leadership election votes in exactly that limbo right now. For good reason they won’t appear on the ERS tally of votes received, but I’d guess quite a few of those voters would regard their vote as having been ‘cast’ – on the basis that they’ve put the X in the box and it’ll be sent in very soon. They aren’t in the ballot box, but they’re out of contention for the candidates to win over – take your pick of whether they should be counted as having voted or not.

In short, it seems likely that our figure might be over by a bit, but that the low-ball claims are likely under by a decent bit – or, in the case of the lowest, by a lot. They aren’t necessarily untrue; instead, in effect the point in the race they illustrate is earlier on than the snapshot provided by the survey.

Of course, in the long-run this will prove academic. But for now it matters – and it’s worth noting that currently the interests of both leadership campaigns and CCHQ itself are all aligned in emphasising that turnout is lower than expected. Hunt and Johnson must activate their supporters as much as possible and avoid either depression or complacency setting in, while the Party’s authorities want to deliver a high-turnout leadership election to display their own effectiveness and deliver the new Prime Minister the largest possible grassroots mandate. Those conditions, more than anything else, underlie this debate on where the race currently stands.

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Hustings in Maidstone. Johnson offers glutinous harmony while Hunt declares himself the better Jeremy

The tour is coming to an end. The two stars, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will soon have other engagements, depending on the verdict the audience reaches on this one.

Last night they performed before a thousand Conservatives at the Kent Showground, outside Maidstone, in a huge green shed next to the Cattle Marquee.

Hunt, who went second, adopted the manner of a pained but amiable grown up who feels obliged to warn that the party is in danger of getting out of hand.

He has nothing against Conservatives having fun: “Optimism is a great thing and I love Boris for his optimism, but it’s got to be optimism grounded in reality.”

According to Hunt, there is “a big risk if we approach Brexit in a headlong way” of ending up with a general election and Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten.

But all is not lost: “We can choose our own Jeremy!”

As he said this, Helen Whately, MP since 2015 for Faversham and Mid Kent, gave a great whoop from just behind the press seats.

The idea of using Jeremy to beat Jeremy did not, however, rouse the audience as a whole to more than polite applause. Many of them were more stirred by the idea of using Johnson to get Brexit done by 31st October.

That was his opening pledge, and it produced a favourable reaction. Soon he was describing how he would do it. He would look after the EU nationals who are living here (a respectable level of applause, for Conservatives are by no means as illiberal as they are painted).

And he would “suspend” the £39 billion we contribute to the EU “in a state of creative ambiguity until such time as we get what we want.”

Not everyone would feel comfortable commending “creative ambiguity” as a key element in their negotiating position. Here, on the other hand, is Jonathan Powell, describing its role in the Northern Ireland peace process:

“The part played by ambiguity in a negotiation is complicated and needs careful handling. In the initial stages, ambiguity is often an essential tool to bridge the gap between irreconcilable positions. The only way we could get over decommissioning at the time of the Good Friday Agreement was to make its terms ambiguous so that each side was able to interpret the Agreement as endorsing their position…constructive ambiguity took the strain.”

That sort of careful justification might be given by Hunt. In Johnson’s hands, creative ambiguity means keeping the other side guessing.

He passed swiftly on to lighter matters, including the ingredients, such as whey, required “to make the Mars Bars in Slough on which our children depend.”

He charged onwards: “Where there’s a will there’s a whey, as I never tire of saying.” This line he has used on an unknown number of previous occasions, but it still produced a decent laugh.

Hunt’s line, that he is an entrepreneur, though he himself asks in an ironic tone whether he has ever told us this before, is somehow less enjoyable.

Hannah Vaughan Jones, the journalist who interviewed each candidate in turn, asked Johnson how he would describe his temperament.

He replied: “I would say eirenic.” A moment’s silence, for many people could not remember what this meant.

Johnson explained that he is “approaching a state of almost glutinous harmony with my fellow Conservatives”.

It is likely that in the ever widening field of Johnson studies, entire books, or PhD theses, or at least entire paragraphs, will one day be devoted to his use of the term “almost glutinous harmony”.

In October 2009, he spoke on Newsnight of the “almost glutinous harmony” between himself and David Cameron at Oxford.

The joke of this is that he and Cameron were not close, yet when it suited them could make a show of closeness. So Johnson is exaggerating in order to show, in a comic way, how bogus the claim is.

And yet it is not totally bogus. There is some sort of affinity between himself and Cameron, and indeed between himself and his fellow Conservatives. The subject eludes definition. We are back to creative ambiguity.

Someone in the audience asked a good question: “How are you going to sort out Tory Remainers who would rather bring down the Government than let us leave with No Deal?”

Johnson replied: “It’s not Remain and Leave any more.”

He added: “I think there’s a real spirit of compromise now in our party.”

Is this true? Nobody knows for sure, or at least nobody can prove the question one way or the other.

Conservatives seemed to be getting on in a perfectly civilised way with each other at the hustings. A group of Johnson supporters lined up to welcome their man, followed by a smaller group of Hunt supporters to welcome their man.

Various drivers waited outside the venue for the Conservatives they had brought to the event. Here was a husband waiting for his wife, and, rather movingly, two parents, neither of them a Conservative voter, waiting for their son, who at the age of 16 has joined the party in order to vote in this leadership election.

These thousand Conservatives did not correspond to the ignorant caricatures sometimes offered in the press of the party’s membership. They took the decision seriously, and were well aware of wider public opinion.

So when Johnson was asked whether as Prime Minister he would call a free vote in Parliament on hunting with dogs, and he replied that he did not think “in all candour” that this is the moment to put hunting “at the top of our standard”, he received solid applause.

Hunt tried in vain to score off his opponent. The Foreign Secretary was amiable, professional and astute, but could not connect with the audience in the way that Johnson did.

Johnson is relaxing into this contest. Because he feels himself to have an unassailable lead, he can dare to play his natural game, mixing serious observations with frivolous ones, in a manner infuriating to some people but attractive to a larger number.

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