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Johnson basks in the adulation of party activists but in the real world trouble awaits

Away from the crowd in Manchester the political realities spell trouble for the prime minister

By Rachel Sylvester  

Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

Get Brexit Done. That is the slogan on banners hanging around the exhibition hall and the applause line of every Tory conference speech. It came straight out of the focus groups conducted by No 10 and is now being repeated back to the voters by a prime minister elected by his party because of his “do or die” commitment to take the UK out of the EU.

Yet it is not, of course, in Manchester that Brexit will be delivered by 31stOctober—if it can be at all—but in Brussels and Westminster where Opposition MPs met this week to plot how to thwart the government’s plans. This must be why there is a strange air of unreality about this event. Party conferences always exist in a parallel universe, with leaders obliged to address two audiences—the party members in the hall, and the voters watching on television at home—but the fact the House of Commons is sitting this week, and the urgency of the Brexit negotiations that are taking place elsewhere only exacerbates the sense that there is an alternative reality being played out in Manchester.

For all the bluster and bravura that Boris Johnson will display in his conference speech today there is nothing to show that he is any closer to fulfilling his “come what may” pledge to leave by Halloween. The “final offer” that the prime minister is expected to table in the EU negotiations, which leaked out overnight, seems a long way from anything that would be acceptable to Brussels. Already the Irish government has poured cold water on the suggested replacement for the backstop that is intended to prevent a hard border and the prime minister has admitted there would have to be customs checks on the island of Ireland. Yesterday cabinet ministers admitted that they had not seen, let alone approved the detail.

To the “do or die” mantra Johnson is now adding a “take it or leave it” threat to the EU. “To be clear we won’t be hanging around waiting for them to negotiate with us, if they reject our offer, that’s it,” the prime minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings was reported to have told a meeting of Tory aides. It is an ultimatum that is impossible for the EU to meet because this is, if the accounts of it are accurate, an unrealistic offer. Privately, not many senior Tories are optimistic that a deal will be achieved.

The truth is the blame game is underway as the prime minister prepares for a general election campaign pitting the people against parliament, the Supreme Court and Brussels. Johnson wants to show he has tried to deliver Brexit and been thwarted by others, rather than accepting responsibility for the crisis himself.

He insists that “extension means extinction” for the Conservative Party. Some senior Tories now admit the government may not be able to avoid delaying Brexit but the man who portrays himself as the Incredible Hulk will not do it without a fight. Yesterday Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, championed the Tories as the party of law and order, even as one MP was sent home after an altercation to which the police were called. Now the government is looking for ways to bypass the law of the land in order to deliver the no-deal Brexit that MPs voted to block.

It could hardly be more unconservative but that does not matter to the radicals now running No 10. The Conservative Party in Manchester is united behind the leader these members elected just weeks ago. The “Back Boris” mugs have sold out in the party shop and the prime minister is cheered to the rafters wherever he goes. But this is conference-land and in the real world trouble awaits.

One moderate Tory MP in Manchester told me he feels like the last house left teetering on the edge of the cliff after the rest of the homes had toppled over due to coastal erosion, or in the Conservatives’ case been pushed by the party whips. It is a lonely and uncomfortable place. Johnson is in a somewhat similar situation. At his conference, he is basking in adulation and enjoying the glorious political view but the strong man of politics is weak. He has taken his party and the country to the brink and may yet crash into the waves.

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