Wednesday, November 20, 2019

As Johnson faces heat, Tory base stays loyal

  • >>Stephen Castle, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-01 03:14:16 BdST

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, September 30, 2019. REUTERS

He has been accused of inciting violence, misleading Queen Elizabeth II, running roughshod over the British Constitution and having a conflict of interest in his dealings with an American businesswoman.

But on Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was basking in the support of allies at the start of one of the most extraordinary conferences ever held by his governing Conservative Party.

That may have had as much to do with who is not at the conference in the northern English city of Manchester as who is.

The meeting is taking place in the absence of prominent party figures purged by Johnson for bucking him on Brexit; they tried to prevent Britain leaving the European Union without a formal agreement.

One of them, Philip Hammond, the former finance minister, wrote in The London Times that it was be the first conference he has missed in 35 years. He described his old party as “unrecognizable” and called it a refuge of “ideological puritanism that brooks no dissent and is more and more strident in its tone.”

But Johnson’s aggressive defense of Brexit, and his determination to leave the EU “do or die” on Oct. 31 is music to the ears of Tory activists, and as he arrived in Manchester on Sunday, he made it clear that he has no intention of changing his tune.

“The best way to end this is to get Brexit done on Oct. 31 and move the country forwards,” Johnson said. “And that is what we are going to do.”

In the prime minister’s brand of scorched-earth politics, Tories see a path to victory in the general election everyone expects soon.

“There is a distinction between the parliamentary party, in which there are a lot of worried people, and the grassroots membership,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

Bale said a “vast majority of Conservative Party members say they would be happy to leave the European Union with no deal, and the majority voted for Boris Johnson.”

Party conferences are morale-boosting events for activists, and Johnson is assured a good reception. The vast majority of Tory Party members, Bale said, “will be behind Boris Johnson and his Brexit policy, and will forgive him for a lot of his language and behavior.”

That may come in handy for Johnson, especially these days.

On Sunday, the prime minister maintained that he had acted with “propriety” when he was asked whether he had been transparent when he was the mayor of London and public money was being given to a company run by his friend Jennifer Arcuri, an American entrepreneur.

Johnson’s defended his actions amid new reports that Arcuri told friends that at that time, beginning in 2012, she was in a sexual relationship with the mayor.

And addressing another accusation of impropriety, on Sunday Downing Street dismissed as “untrue” a claim by journalist Charlotte Edwardes that Johnson had squeezed her thigh under a table at a dinner in 1999, when he was editor of the Spectator magazine, while doing the same to another female guest.

Johnson has been also called upon to defend his behavior on the floor of Parliament.

Speaking to the BBC, he brushed aside furor over his language in debates on Brexit, rejecting arguments that his rhetoric might incite violence and describing himself as a “model of restraint.” He refused to apologize for using the word “humbug” to respond to opposition lawmaker Paula Sherriff after she complained of receiving death threats, claiming that he had been discussing a different point.

The prime minister also refused to comment on media reports that he had apologized to Queen Elizabeth after the Supreme Court ruled last week that his advice to her on suspending Parliament was unlawful.

And Johnson doubled down on his promise to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, hinting that he would find ways to circumvent a law passed by Parliament to prevent a disorderly “no deal” Brexit.

With Parliament unexpectedly back in session — Johnson’s move to suspend it was rejected last week in an extraordinary Supreme Court ruling — Tory lawmakers at the conference were on standby to race 200 miles back to London if necessary, as their political adversaries plotted their next moves against the prime minister.

Undoubtedly Johnson has alarmed some of his own lawmakers with his uncompromising language and his refusal to show contrition after the Supreme Court ruling.

Last week the culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, wrote on Twitter that “at a time of strong feelings we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us.” Her former colleague, Amber Rudd, who recently resigned from the Cabinet, told The Evening Standard, that Johnson used language that “incites violence.”

Such criticism may be beginning to dent his popularity a little, but according to some opinion polls, Johnson’s party enjoys a healthy lead over its main opposition, the Labour Party.

And his adversaries in Parliament face their own difficulties. They have twice voted to prevent the general election Johnson wants, insisting that he must first remove the risk of a disorderly Brexit by seeking another extension of the deadline to withdraw from the bloc.

The Scottish National Party is impatient to try to bring down Johnson through a motion of no confidence now — but that could actually be a boon for Johnson since it could result in the election he wants.

In Manchester, Conservative Party activists are preparing for an election and think that they at last have a winning strategy after two dispiriting years of drift under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

Johnson’s aides want to unite the voters who, in 2016, opted in a referendum to leave the EU, and neutralize the threat from the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage.

So the main slogan at the Conservative conference is: “Get Brexit done.”

Johnson also wants to persuade voters that his government would invest in public services, including health and the police, to redress cuts made during the period of austerity that followed Britain’s financial crash.

The Conservatives, Bale said, are “very good at identifying what they need to do to win an election: in other words to spend money to try to cut off the attacks from Labour and to talk about ‘no deal’ to reduce the threat from the Brexit Party.”

“It is not the world’s most successful political party for nothing,” he said.

Bale said it remained unclear whether the party’s embrace of Johnson’s hard line was a temporary maneuver or a fundamental metamorphosis for the Tories into a more nationalistic, isolationist party.

“The Conservative Party always saw itself as the party that would defend constitutional norms and the rule of law,” he said. “We have seen something qualitatively different in the last month.”

Either way, support for Johnson at the conference was strong.

Peter Smallwood, a party member from London, said the Conservatives “are very, very good, when it matters, at coming together,” and dismissed the scandal over Arcuri and the dispute over Johnson’s rhetoric as irrelevant.

Molly Samuel-Leport, another party member from London, said: “The membership and the people will rally behind Boris Johnson because he is a strong leader. People want Brexit done, and Boris Johnson is the only person who seems to be speaking up for the people.”

 

c.2019 The New York Times Company