There was a sense of deja vu in Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum on Saturday. At a podium stood Boris Johnson, a campaigning Conservative prime minister, promising to deliver Brexit, support Britain’s towns, provide better housing and improve local schools.
It was a little over two years ago that Theresa May, his ousted predecessor, included almost identical commitments as she launched her party’s election campaign just a few miles up the road in Bolton, admittedly in less bombastic fashion. While the two prime ministers are political chalk and cheese, Tory MPs believe that the similarities in location and theme are no coincidence.
In the latest twist in Britain’s political turmoil, many MPs believe Johnson is embracing a strategy remarkably similar to that pursued by May. Emboldened by a poll lead, she called an election with the aim of winning a majority that included traditionally Labour-supporting areas that had voted heavily for Brexit.
With a war cabinet now assembled, his wide-ranging speech in Manchester was further evidence to many in Westminster that there is a clear Johnson direction. Either by force or design, so they believe, it will culminate in another general election campaign designed to unite as many of the 52% who voted leave as possible – including those in Labour’s heartlands. The likes of Darlington, Bolton North East and Bishop Auckland will again be targets.
Johnson and his team fiercely deny there is any plan to call an election before Brexit has been delivered, with aides told during a meeting with strategy chief Dominic Cummings last week that all efforts were strictly focused on leaving the EU by the end of October, deal or no deal. Johnson also denied that he was aiming at Labour Leavers when questioned by the Observer on Saturday.
“Our party, the Conservative party, wants to unite the country and deliver for everybody,” he said. “That’s our programme. I’ll be zooming around all corners of the UK.”
Yet there was no doubt Johnson was in campaign mode and aiming squarely at the disillusioned backers of Brexit. In front of Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, built to run on the world’s first intercity passenger rail line between Liverpool and Manchester, he made a series of pledges around local transport, housing and heritage that made him sound more like a power-mad local mayor than a prime minister.
Speaking of struggling young people growing up in fading municipal towns with proud histories, he said: “They haven’t failed. It’s we, us, the politicians, our politics has failed them.” People who voted for Brexit in the north weren’t just voting against Brussels, he said. “They were voting against London, too, and against all concentrations of power in remote centres.”
There was also an expensive list of policy fixes. The flagship announcement was a £3.6bn fund for left-behind communities, to be handed to 100 towns in the first instance. In effect, it is an expansion of a scheme first announced by May as she attempted to win support for her Brexit deal from Labour MPs.
He also pledged to fund a new rail link between Manchester and Leeds and improved bus services in the short term. It comes on top of his commitments, repeated in his address, to spend tens of billions on police, improving school funding and increasing broadband access.
The question is whether Johnson will be more effective than May in scooping up Labour Leavers – and while May effectively killed off Ukip, Johnson also has to deal with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
“There are differences now,” says one senior Tory opponent of the new prime minister. “Back then, Theresa May, to her credit, tried to do some important and difficult things as part of her campaign that proved to be unpopular. Johnson will have absolutely no time for anything similar.”
Meanwhile, moderate Tories are convinced that the bid to win Leave votes will hand the Liberal Democrats and their new leader Jo Swinson the chance to pick up Tory Remainers. “It’s early days, but the net result at the moment looks like we’re standing still,” said one former minister.
Labour is also trying to counter the Johnson threat to its turf. Insiders say detailed analysis has been done and a summer tour of marginal seats is planned. It is understood two months have been spent planning and testing a strategy against Johnson. Labour’s internal research, insiders claim, suggests that Johnson now has limited ability to reach across party lines and his appeal to Labour Leave voters has declined through the Tory leadership campaign.
Their plan acknowledges that the “game has changed” and that the party needs to capitalise on the Tory admission that higher public spending is needed. “By moving on to our territory, accepting our terms on the economy, we’re in control of the narrative,” claimed one insider. “Johnson and his hard-right cabinet will never convince the voters they’re more in touch with ordinary people on issues like the NHS and schools.”
Power mad already
Several newly appointed ministers are already laying down the law to their officials. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has imposed a two-page limit on briefings and warned he will “pay attention to the font sizes and margins”. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has been insisting on his favourite pink cup for his coffee. And Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded double spaces after full stops and deemed the word “unacceptable” unacceptable. All the big issues tackled.
Calling for nurse
At the end of the reshuffle, eyebrows were raised at the return of Nadine Dorries, the outspoken pro-Brexit Tory MP. The former nurse is now a junior health minister. She once described David Cameron and George Osborne as “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”, but she is set to struggle to keep track of the price of paracetamol as a no-deal Brexit ensures it becomes a precious commodity.
Brexit ‘hard man’ flexes muscles
Self-styled “Brexit hard man” Steve Baker, a leading rebel under Theresa May, turned down a ministerial job offer from the new prime minister. Apparently, Baker’s principles meant he could not bear to be muzzled by being in office – or was cross at not being offered something that better suited his immense skillset.
The special relationship took another surprising twist as Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka congratulated Johnson on becoming prime minister of the “United Kingston”. The error was later corrected, but not before it had led several MPs to fantasise about emigrating to the Carribean.