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23 September 2019

Labour is voting on a Brexit policy, but the party wants the media’s attention focused on Boris Johnson

Labour has released a video accusing the media of downplaying allegations that Johnson had ties to an US entrepreneur who was allocated public money.

By Stephen Bush

Labour delegates will today decide the party’s Brexit policy after last night’s compositing meeting failed to produce a consensus between the pro-Remain majority and the various opponents of a unequivocal anti-Brexit position.

It means that three contradictory Brexit positions will be voted on by conference delegates. There are essentially two desirable options as far as the Labour leadership is concerned: for conference delegates to vote for all three, which would mean that while the party conference would have sent a strong pro-Remain signal, it would leave the Labour leadership with the freedom to interpret those contradictory mandates as it wished, leaving the way clear for a middle ground position on Brexit in the manifesto. That’s an option being seriously considered by several of the major trade unions, as a way to avoid a direct confrontation with the leadership but to send a signal about their desire for a referendum re-run.

Another, significantly more unlikely, option is for the party conference to reject the pro-Remain position entirely. A victory for the leadership, yes, but also a dangerous signal to send to Remain voters about where the party is at.

And then there’s the nightmare scenario, in which conference delegates rebel against the attempt to manage the floor and reject the leadership’s preferred motion but endorse a pro-Remain position.

All very dramatic, but the Labour leadership thinks that the eyes of the media should be focussed elsewhere: on Boris Johnson and the Sunday Times’s allegations that he failed to declare his personal ties to an American entrepreneur who was allocated thousands of pounds of public money while Johnson was mayor.

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Johnson yesterday declined to comment on the issue six times when quizzed by reporters at the UN, and Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, has called for an independent inquiry into the issue.

Labour has released a punchy video accusing the media in general, and the BBC in particular, of downplaying the story to benefit the establishment. The official opposition’s anger at the press and the BBC is based on its sincere belief that it isn’t given a fair shake, but the video has the happy by-product of keeping the story in the news.

It’s obviously of more significance than the 400th round of Labour’s forever war, but Johnson’s good fortune is that it is coming out at a time when parliament isn’t sitting and the legislative time can’t be used to set up tricky votes or difficult questions for the PM.

What the opposition parties really need is for parliament to return – not so they can delay a no-deal Brexit, which they have already managed, but so they can keep the story going and discomfort the government. The stakes in the Supreme Court case about prorogation, which is expected to return a verdict today or tomorrow, just got significantly higher.

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