Magnetic and lustful, Boris swept in last: QUENTIN LETTS watches the former foreign secretary arrive late to savage May's Chequers plan talks as he surfaces at Tory Brexiteer event
All the zing was not in the Commons Chamber, where Chancellor Philip Hammond was droning away with the latest Project Fear misery, but on the committee corridor.
Matador of the moment Boris Johnson arrived at an event where Brexiteers were hearing upbeat predictions about the economic impact of any 'no deal' exit from the EU.
'From Project Fear to Project Prosperity' said a windy logo. Project Polyanna, possibly. But this continued jauntiness by the Brexiteers, which drives Remainers round the twist, is as much political as scientific.
By continuing to tug at Madam Glumbucket, they make it harder for her to drift further to Brussels.
Boris arrived late. Often does. Bad time-keeping or a desire to sweep in last, a Sicilian prince entering a ball? I have finally read Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard, and the prince in that great story – magnetic and lustful – has similarities with our blond hero.
The meeting was chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg who praised David Davis and Boris for quitting the Cabinet after Mrs May ambushed them at Chequers. Applause. Some attendees clutched their brows.
Boredom at the economics lecture? Or shielding their eyes from the room's alarmingly swirly green wallpaper?
Boris intervened to say he agreed with beancounter Patrick Minford that Chequers would leave us 'a vassal state' to Brussels. The meeting was firmly opposed to Chequers but Mr Rees-Mogg averred it would be possible to vote against Chequers yet still support Mrs May in a confidence vote.
This debate was about policy, no personalities.
The heavy media presence, there almost entirely for boisterous Boris, suggests that may not be entirely the case.
Come the meeting's end, he was pursued by a posse of scribes and broadcasters into the committee corridor (it is the length of a rural aerodrome). First he turned left, then right, then darted into a siding, then out again.
News hounds all this time yapped 'do you have full confidence in Mrs May?' and 'is this a leadership bid?'. Shades of a rolling maul under the Twickenham goalposts.
Boris insisted the meeting had 'absolutely nothing' to do with leadership plotting. It was about trying to wrench the May regime away from a stinky deal that could 'humiliate' Britain.
Things in the Commons were duller but not without incident, Mr Hammond announcing that Bank of England governor Mark Carney would now stay to early 2020.
Mr Hammond thought Mr Carney would bring stability 'to what could be quite a turbulent period for our economy'. This elicited a cry of 'shame!'.
It was not clear if the heckler was angry about smoothiechops Remainer Carney being given more time, or about Mr Hammond's habitual pessimism.
Who are the Tory figures who were at the Brexit economic plan launch?
Here are the Tory Brexiteers who were at the launch of the economic plan in Parliament:
Steve Baker (former Brexit minister)
Jacob Rees-Mogg (chairman of the Brexit-backing European Research Group)
Boris Johnson (ex Foreign Secretary)
David Davis (former Brexit Secretary)
Iain Duncan Smith (former Tory leader)
Peter Bone (Tory MP)
Sir William Cash (Tory MP)
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had a chance to clarify Labour thinking on Brexit. 'Let me put this to the Chancellor,' he began, with tremendous self-importance.
Then it started to go wrong. 'Can we both try to get the message across to the Prime Minister, who continues to insist that no deal is better than...' Doubt nibbled at Mr McDonnell's sweetbreads.
He paused. 'No deal is better than...' he said. Another pause. Outer calm, inner meltdown. He continued: 'No, a bad deal. No deal. To insist. That a bad deal is better. Than no deal.'
Labour frontbencher Jonathan Reynolds, who is perhaps twice as bright as Mr McDonnell, gave the smile of a parent whose child has just dried at the school poetry recital.
For the record, Mrs May says no deal would be better than a bad deal. Even though she probably believes the opposite. Then Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) claimed Mr Hammond had boasted he had 'money to burn'.
So why was he still closing libraries? Mr Hammond, irked, said Mr Skinner should have 'a hearing test'.
Much clucking from Labour. Mr McDonnell demanded an apology for this allegedly grievous insult to the ancient (and maybe slightly cloth-eared) Skinner.
Not for the first time this week, the outrage at a politician's perfectly legitimate, lively language was bogus.
Fifty MPs want May out unless she ditches her Chequers plan
By Jason Groves
Tory Brexiteers were openly discussing how to oust Theresa May last night.
Sources at a meeting of the European Research Group said the MPs were deciding what action to take if the Prime Minister refused to drop her Chequers proposals.
‘It was amazing,’ said one. ‘There were 50 people present, openly discussing how to get rid of the PM and literally no one said “Oooh no, we mustn’t talk about that”.’
Another source said the conversation continued even when Tory Party whips entered the room. ‘It was brazen – really detailed discussion of how best you game the leadership rules.’
Sources said there was also mockery of a charm offensive in which MPs invited for dinner in Downing Street for briefings on the Chequers plan for Brexit.
Another MP present said the discussion about Mrs May’s future took up almost half of last night’s meeting.
He said opposition to Chequers had hardened over the summer recess after MPs spent time speaking to constituency members and voters.
‘This is a fight to the death,’ he said. ‘I would be amazed if a leadership contest is not triggered straight after (Tory) conference unless she backs down.’
The level of discontent will alarm Mrs May’s aides who know it takes just 48 MPs to force a confidence vote.
However, senior Tories believe the ERG does not have the numbers to defeat her.
The meeting followed a difficult week for the ERG in which plans to publish a detailed blueprint for an alternative Brexit have been shelved.
It came just hours after Boris Johnson gave his first public show of support by attending an event hosted by its leaders.
Last week, the ERG told journalists it had drawn up a series of announcements to show it had a full alternative to Chequers. But the plan was dropped after senior members spotted inaccuracies and warned some of the ideas would be seen as eccentric.
Leaked drafts suggested it contained a number of radical ideas, including a Star Wars-style missile defence shield, an expeditionary force to defend the Falklands and dropping all tariffs on food, which the farming establishment claims would destroy British agriculture.
One source said: ‘We had to pull it. We had to make sure every dot and comma was sensible or we would be torn apart. Some of the ideas, such as the Falklands force, were nonsense. That’s got nothing to do with Brexit and should never have been in there.’
Another said some in the group had included their own pet projects, such as massively boosting defence spending, that were unrelated to Brexit. The report, entitled A Better Deal For Britain, is now not expected to be published.
The group faced further confusion last night over its plans for resolving the problem of the Northern Ireland border, which are due to be published this morning. Sources said that an early draft that proposed allowing ‘flying squads’ of tax inspectors to carry out checks away from the border had been dropped.
‘It’s not been our finest week,’ one member of the ERG acknowledged last night.
‘But I wouldn’t write us off. Chequers is not going to get through – we will make sure of that.’
In other developments:
Mr Johnson threw his weight behind a new report calling for the UK to leave the EU without a deal, and warned: ‘I cannot possibly vote for Chequers’;
The Economists for Free Trade group said no-deal would let the UK make global trade deals and cut regulation, boosting the economy by £1trillion over 15 years; Chancellor Philip Hammond warned the UK would still have to pay much of the £39billion Brexit divorce bill in the event of no deal;
Whitehall sources said the EU was preparing for an emergency summit in November to hammer out a Brexit deal with the UK amid fears time was running out.
The setback to the ERG’s plans has delighted Downing Street, which sent out loyalists to point out that the party’s Eurosceptic wing no longer claimed to have a fully worked-up alternative plan.
One senior Tory source said: ‘They have been promising an alternative plan since Chequers and we were all ears, if a bit sceptical.
‘Now it turns out they haven’t got one after all.’