DAN HODGES: Boris Johnson is taking a beating but Corbyn will save him

DAN HODGES: Boris Johnson is taking a beating… but Jeremy Corbyn will step forward to save him this week

 Boris Johnson has had another dire week. Defeated in the courts. Accused of deceiving the Queen. 

Forced to again reject the unwelcome advances of Nigel Farage and the poisoned chalice of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party.

But the Prime Minister should hold his nerve. Because a man on a white charger may be about to come riding to his rescue. A man by the name of Jeremy Corbyn.

‘Corbyn had better watch himself,’ one MP tells me. ‘I’m going to keep my head down for the next couple of weeks. But when reselection is out of the way, they can’t touch me. And then I’m coming for him’. The Labour leader is pictured on Friday in Fife, Scotland

The Labour Party conference starts this week in Brighton. With the Government in disarray, it should be the moment for the Opposition to pounce. 

But instead, the Labour leader is planning to use it as the moment to pounce upon his own MPs, his own Shadow Cabinet and his own voters.

‘Eighty per cent of the constituency delegates are going to be Momentum members,’ a Shadow Minister tells me. ‘The unions are in their pockets. This is what the Corbynites have been waiting for.’

Actually, they’re not even waiting until they arrive on the south coast before making their move. 

The number one Corbynite target for deselection was Deputy Leader Tom Watson. But he was safely reselected by his constituency with only one vote cast in opposition. And that was reportedly because the member concerned got confused about which box to tick

Last week, Labour backbenchers were stunned by the news that Hull North MP Diana Johnson was being targeted for deselection by Corbynite activists. 

Ms Johnson is no Blairite snowflake, but a member of the soft-Left Tribune group that has so far been pragmatically loyal to Corbyn. But not loyal enough.

‘The move against Diana has scared a lot of people,’ a colleague reveals. ‘Everyone’s walking around saying to each other, ‘If they’re going to go for her, then none of us are safe.’ ‘

They aren’t. And that’s because they are all an expendable part of Corbyn’s strategy. 

First, bully Labour MPs and moderate activists into submissive silence. Then use control of conference to crush calls for a clear Brexit position. 

And finally turn the fervour of what will be framed as a pre-Election rally into a drive to install Corbyn as the head of a so-called ‘Government of National Unity’.

A simple strategy. A ruthless strategy. And a strategy that could have been drawn up in Dominic Cummings’ subterranean lair deep in the bowels of Downing Street.

First, there are the appalling optics of Corbyn unleashing his vengeful acolytes against his MPs at precisely the moment Boris is struggling to deal with the fallout from the expulsion of 21 of his own former Ministers and veteran backbenchers. 

As one Shadow Minister says: ‘The Tories begin tearing themselves apart, so Jeremy goes, ‘Here, hold my beer.’ ‘

I’m also told that John McDonnell has been involved in discreet negotiations with the SNP over their backing for an interim Corbyn administration, and those talks are making progress so long as the SNP receives private assurances over a second independence referendum

Aside from the political visuals, there’s also a second, practical reason why the Momentum-led show trials of Labour MPs is set to backfire. It will actually make those MPs who survive the ordeal stronger.

The number one Corbynite target for deselection was Deputy Leader Tom Watson. But he was safely reselected by his constituency with only one vote cast in opposition. 

And that was reportedly because the member concerned got confused about which box to tick.

Numerous other Labour MPs are also safely negotiating the process. And they are as mad as hell about being forced through it, especially with a General Election on the horizon. 

‘Corbyn had better watch himself,’ one MP tells me. ‘I’m going to keep my head down for the next couple of weeks. But when reselection is out of the way, they can’t touch me. And then I’m coming for him.’

The bully-boy tactics will probably enable Corbyn and his team to get their way in Brighton. But it will prove a pyrrhic victory.

Watson allies are already briefing that if necessary he will take the battle over Brexit to the floor of conference. 

‘It’s going to be like 1985 and the fight against Militant all over again,’ one says. 

‘You’re going to see a Labour leader scuttling around Brighton trying to issue a redundancy notice to his own Deputy Leader.’

Even though Watson is likely to be defeated, the strategic damage done by Labour’s Brexit position, or non-position, is potentially seismic. Many northern Labour voters want Brexit and want it now. 

Many southern and metropolitan Labour voters want Brexit blocked at any price. But by going into a Brexit election without a clear Brexit policy, Corbyn is set to alienate every single one of them.

Boris Johnson has had another dire week. Defeated in the courts. Accused of deceiving the Queen. Forced to again reject the unwelcome advances of Nigel Farage and the poisoned chalice of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party. But the Prime Minister should hold his nerve

And in the process he’s also about to save Boris’s skin by scuppering plans for a Government of National Unity through a demand that he – and he alone – must be handed the reins of power if the Prime Minister is forced to stand down.

Last week, Shadow Ministers believed Corbyn could be persuaded a ‘clean skin’ like Tory grandee Ken Clarke should be allowed to lead a temporary administration to stop a No Deal Brexit. But I understand Corbyn’s team has successfully vetoed the idea.

I’m also told that John McDonnell has been involved in discreet negotiations with the SNP over their backing for an interim Corbyn administration, and those talks are making progress so long as the SNP receives private assurances over a second independence referendum.

But even with the SNP’s backing, it would be hard to see where Corbyn could get the votes to oust Boris and take up residence of the No 10 flat.

The Lib Dems are opposed. Many of the 21 Tory defectors are opposed. And after the latest bungled round of deselection punishment beatings, it’s likely a number of Labour MPs would oppose him as well.

‘I think there are about 30 of us who wouldn’t back Corbyn for PM in those circumstances,’ says a Labour backbencher. ‘We’d rather go for someone who was standing down at the next Election and looks like a genuine compromise figure.’

Boris Johnson has had a torrid fortnight. He has created uproar by attempting to deselect a number of his longstanding MPs. 

His Brexit stance has confused and angered supporters and opponents on both wings of his party. He stands accused of putting his personal ambition and his vanity before the interests of the nation.

But this week Corbyn arrives in Brighton. When he gets there, Boris should offer to hold his beer.

In each war there are casualties, and I’m told Iain Duncan Smith believes he is about to be sacrificed in the battle for Brexit. 

‘Iain has said he thinks it’s over for him,’ a backbench colleague informs me. ‘He says there’s no way he can hold his seat if there’s a snap Election. His majority in Chingford is less than 3,000 and Labour are breathing down his neck.’ 

There are rumours some Tory Brexiteers may be considering a ‘chicken run’ to the Brexit Party in an attempt to secure safer seats, but I’m told IDS is not among them. 

‘He’ll stick with the party until the end,’ a friend says. The quiet man will go quietly. 

Are the black sheep coming home?

Downing Street’s official line is there is no route back for the 21 Tory Brexit defectors. But I understand that behind-the-scenes discussions are under way to find a way of returning at least some of the black sheep to the fold.

Over the past week, the group’s unofficial shop steward, David Gauke, has been hitting the phones in a bid to prevent defections to Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats. And talks have been held about how to respond if Boris Johnson succeeds in bringing a new Brexit deal to the Commons.

As one of the exiles explains: ‘No 10 is talking tough. But if Boris brings a new deal back, the chances are the ERG will oppose it. So every vote is going to be vital.’

Boris may not forget but he might have to forgive.

Westminster Whisper

Dominic Cummings has been giving government aides an insight into Downing Street’s strategy in the event that this week’s Supreme Court ruling on prorogation goes against No 10.

‘If they rule against, we’ll just prorogue again,’ he told Friday night’s meeting of special advisers, to nervous laughter. ‘And I’m only half-joking,’ he added.

They aren’t laughing in Buckingham Palace.

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