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  1. Politics
20 November 2019updated 09 Jun 2022 5:12pm

Jeremy Hunt agrees with Trump on Sadiq Khan, and other lessons from today’s Tory hustings

By Patrick Maguire

Rory Stewart’s Brexit policy is more conventional than it looks

The international development secretary was asked by the Irish Times about the practicalities of his plan for a citizens’ assembly – what he describes solving Brexit by jury duty. A similar model used to reform abortion law in the Republic.

Stewart was reminded that when used in Ireland, citizens’ assemblies had required much longer than a single summer – and a great deal of parliamentary time thereafter – to dislodge widely and deeply held prejudices.

Asked how his model could work on such a truncated timetable, Stewart demurred and seemed to revise the commitment – hitherto the centrepiece of his Brexit policy. “It’s a threat over Parliament,” he said. “It’s a Plan B. It’s not a Plan A.”

So what is Plan A? The same withdrawal agreement that has been rejected by the Commons three times. Stewart insisted that winning the leadership election would give him the mandate from the Conservative members that Theresa May and her Brexit policy so sorely lacked. He also suggested that the . Either might be true in theory but in practice his willingness to countenance them is a big part of the reason that his bid will ultimately hit a lowish ceiling.

Stewart was later asked just how far he was prepared to go to avert a no-deal scenario.  He revealed that he would not vote against a Conservative government in a vote of confidence. Beneath the bonhomie, his Brexit policy is much more conventional than it might appear.

Nobody has an answer on the Irish border

Every candidate was asked whether they accepted the definition of a hard Irish border agreed by Theresa May and the European Union in December 2017: no new physical infrastructure. Stewart, unsurprisingly, said yes – as did Michael Gove.

Sajid Javid, after a fashion, did the same – he claimed not to remember the exact definition but after a lengthy monologue concluded he agreed with the principle of no new infrastructure on the border.

Jeremy Hunt said he “broadly” agreed with the definition, adding that he thought any new infrastructure on the border itself would violate the Belfast Agreement. But he did not rule out new infrastructure away from the border.

Dominic Raab, meanwhile, said that definition was a mistake. Declining to agree or disagree, he went on to describe it as a “masterpiece in constructive ambiguity”. Like Hunt, he said that he did not foresee any need for new infrastructure on the frontier, but went further in suggesting that checks away from the border could play a role in solving the problem.

That every plausible contender for second place agrees with the definition that was ultimately Theresa May’s undoing raises inevitable questions about how they – or any Tory leader – will resolve the backstop issue.

Indeed, Gove did not deny that the controversial protocol would remain in the withdrawal agreement. Instead he pinned his hopes on a document of “equal legal standing” providing for alternative arrangements. Or as it’s known in Brussels, a unicorn.

All believe they will make the second ballot

None of Stewart (19 votes), Javid (23 votes) or Raab (27 votes) scored highly enough in the first round to meet the 33 MP threshold for inclusion in the second. All were asked whether they believed they would make it through.

Stewart repeated the answer he gave ahead of the first ballot: that if all of his supporters made good on their private pledges, he was likely to hit the quota. But ultimately his conclusion was non-committal: “I don’t know.”

Javid, meanwhile, said he was “extremely” confident of progressing. Raab, uncharacteristically, went for a less macho adverbial: “Quietly confident.”

None would remain in a second referendum

Every candidate was asked which way they would vote in the event of a fresh plebiscite on Brexit.

Stewart, so often derided by colleagues as a continuity Remainer, avoided giving a firm commitment. “I am avoiding the question,” he said. “If there were a second referendum, I would have completely failed. I am trying to make a complicated answer because you are complicated people.

Javid – perhaps atoning for the original sin of having backed Remain in 2016 – pledged his support for Leave, as did Hunt. Raab and Gove’s answers were deemed too obvious to justify asking the question, but both said they had no regrets abotu  – or rather, that those that they did were the fault of Theresa May.

Whoever wins, a collision with the SNP is inevitable

Both Hunt and Gove were asked to name the circumstances under which they would give permission for a new referendum on Scottish independence. Both replied with a flat no.

All six candidates occupy a similar space. Expect that intransigence to be severely tested if and when the SNP seek or secure a new mandate for a referendum.

On Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Hunt agrees with Donald Trump

Yesterday, Donald Trump launched yet another attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Twitter. Approvingly quoting Katie Hopkins – who referred to the capital as “Khan’s Londonistan” – the US President said: “LONDON needs a new mayor ASAP. Khan is a disaster – will only get worse!”

Each candidate was asked for their views. None offered outright condemnation. But the most striking answer came from Hunt. Though he declined to endorse either tweeter’s language, he said he “150 per cent” agreed with the president’s “sentiment” about Khan and his handling of violent crime.

Fiscal rectitude is (slowly) coming back into fashion

One of the more curious features of this leadership election is how little emphasis the candidates have put on questions of debt and deficit reduction – the very essence of David Cameron and George Osborne’s electoral pitch. It attests to the change Brexit has wrought on the politics and priorities of Tory MPs.

Until this afternoon, only Rory Stewart had responded to Philip Hammond’s demand to commit to both reduce the national debt every year and maintain the deficit at below two per cent of GDP. Over the course of the session he was joined by Michael Gove. Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, refused to commit to not borrowing.

Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.

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