Tory Conference Overshadowed by Johnson Claims: Brexit Update
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, at Downing Street in London, on Sept. 25, 2019. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Tory Conference Overshadowed by Johnson Claims: Brexit Update

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been battling allegations over his past sexual conduct as he struggles to control the agenda of his Conservative Party’s annual conference. The premier is trying to promote policies he hopes will win votes in an election he wants to trigger.

But he’s facing political opposition to his hard-line Brexit strategy, and fending off questions over claims that he misused his influence while Mayor of London.

Key Developments:

  • Government accuses opponents of colluding with the European Union
  • Grieve receives death threat after collusion accusation
  • Johnson to conduct Brexit negotiations by phone during conference, tells BBC there is a “good chance” of a Brexit deal
  • Premier denies impropriety in links with businesswoman
  • Johnson denies historical allegation he groped journalist

Obeying the Law Must Be ‘Iron Rule’ (8:30 p.m.)

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that respect for the law is an "iron rule" and that his word matters more than that of "some unaccountable person" speaking off the record. His comments are a veiled dig at government advisers who brief the media anonymously and threaten to disregard the law in order to ensure the U.K. leaves the EU next month.

Some officials in Johnson’s team have been quoted saying the government will defy a new law intended to stop him forcing Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 without a deal to soften the impact on the economy.

"Whatever one thinks about the merit of decisions that are made, one iron rule has to apply: we have respect for the rule of law," Buckland, whose titles include Lord Chancellor, told a fringe meeting at the Tory Party conference.

"That is what your Lord Chancellor will do time and time again, without worrying about the politics of it, without worrying about what Number 10 might say. My word is the law, not some unaccountable person who might be saying something off record."

Johnson’s Office Denies He Groped Woman (6.30 p.m.)

A spokesman for Johnson denied an allegation by a journalist that he groped her at a lunch around 20 years ago, when he was a magazine editor.

The journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, made the allegations in an article in the Sunday Times. Johnson had, she said, placed his hand “high up my leg” with “enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright.” After the lunch, she compared notes with the woman sitting on Johnson’s other side, who said she’d had the same experience.

“This allegation is untrue,” a spokesman for Johnson’s office, said.

Grieve Receives Death Threat (6.15 p.m.)

Dominic Grieve, a Conservative expelled from the party after rebelling on the Benn Act, said he had received a death threat after the Mail on Sunday reported Johnson’s office had launched an investigation into “foreign collusion” with the EU.

“I have not colluded,” Grieve told Bloomberg News. “We did it off our own bat. And what’s more, talking to the EU is not a criminal offense, so it’s a double lie from No 10. It’s like living a totalitarian state. The death threats have been coming in. I’ve had one on the train up to Manchester this afternoon.”

“This is quite a regular correspondent. He e-mails to tell me I’m wrong quite often but this afternoon he told me I should be killed,” Grieve said. “It will go to the police tomorrow.”

DUP Rejects Separate N. Ireland Brexit Plan (5:25 p.m.)

Democratic Unionist Party Leader Arlene Foster said Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Speaking at a fringe event at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester, Foster was asked whether she’d countenance a Brexit deal that involves different treatment for Northern Ireland beyond agricultural checks, and whether she could accept Northern Ireland staying in both the EU and U.K. customs areas. “No to all of that,” she replied.

“We have to leave on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” Foster said. “We cannot have an internal customs border with the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s an anathema. It has constitutional implications as well as economic implications.”

Foster then added that post-Brexit, it “doesn’t work for us if we’re also in the EU taking rules and regulations over which we have no democratic say and actually the only people who do have a democratic say is Dublin.”

Rees-Mogg: Parliament Will Back a Deal (4:00 p.m.)

Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose Cabinet position is steering legislation through the House of Commons, suggested a Brexit deal will now pass if Johnson brings one back from Brussels.

“The mood has turned,” Rees-Mogg said. “If the DUP are happy, there will be very few Conservatives including those who are without the whip who are then against a deal, and at that point, there a number of people in other parties who think that yes we must now just finish this.”

While Johnson earlier ruled out a pact with the Brexit Party at the next election, Rees-Mogg went out of his way to praise them. He said Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage is “in many ways admirable.”

Gove Flags No-Deal ‘Turbulence’ (3:35 p.m.)

Michael Gove, the cabinet minister charged with no-deal Brexit planning, said that if that scenario pans out, there will be “challenges,” at least “initially.” They include EU plans to impose new tariffs and checks on trade, and possible barriers to U.K. citizens abroad, he said.

Nevertheless, Gove told the Tory Party conference in Manchester that the government has taken “huge steps” to plan for a no-deal departure, including “investing in new customs procedures to smooth trade, supporting businesses to adapt to new rules and standing up for our citizens abroad.”

Gove said his preference would be to leave with a deal, because “we cannot anticipate every risk and cannot guarantee against some turbulence.”

But he reiterated the party’s intention to stick to its Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the EU. “We cannot allow this division and delay to continue,” he said. “We must get Brexit done.”

Raab: Brexit Will Happen on Oct. 31 (3:15 a.m.)

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab repeated the line that Britain will leave the EU at the end of October “no ifs, no buts,” just an hour after Party Chairman delivered the same line: It’s clearly a message the Tories will drum all week.

“We’ll strive in good faith for a deal,” Raab told the party conference in Manchester. “But if the EU spurn the opportunity for a win-win deal, We will leave at the end of October: No ifs, no buts.”

Raab committed the government to a “new Magnitsky Law” which he said would “place visa bans and asset freezes on those individuals deemed responsible for serious human rights abuses, including torture.”

He went on to say that keeping Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party out of government was more important than Brexit, and issued a warning to the two dozen-odd ex-Conservatives who are currently sitting as independents in the House of Commons after either quitting the party or being expelled.

“To any of our colleagues -- or former colleagues -- tempted to put Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum mob into Number 10, as part of some ‘temporary’ anti-Brexit coalition: I just say this: history would never forgive you.”

Defence Secretary Says No Make-Up for Army (3 p.m.)

Responding to a report in the Sun on Sunday that said army chiefs are considering allowing male soldiers to use make-up to make its employment policy inclusive. Speaking to the Conservative Party conference, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace drew applause when he declared: “Men will be allowed to wear makeup -- as long as it’s camouflage cover!”

Cleverly Pledges to Deliver Brexit, Win Election (2:45 p.m.)

Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly opened the conference with a bullish message that the Tories will get Brexit done and then win a general election. Playing on the Parliament-versus-the-people theme that Johnson has advanced in recent weeks, Cleverly said the main opposition Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National parties “just love to block things,” including the conference itself, Johnson’s attempts to trigger an early general election, and Brexit.

“They will fail,” Cleverly said at the conference in Manchester. “Let’s get Brexit done and get on with making the U.K. –- and I mean the whole of the U.K. -- a better, safer, fairer and more prosperous place to live. We will leave the EU on the Oct. 31. No ifs. No buts.”

He concluded with an electoral rallying cry: “The election Corbyn has tried to avoid will come. And when it does, we will be ready. And we will win,” he said. “Bring. It. On.”

Johnson ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ of EU Deal (12:05 p.m.)

Touring a hospital in Manchester, Johnson was asked about the likelihood of a Brexit deal. “We are cautiously optimistic -- it’s difficult,” he told reporters, highlighting the obstacles of the Irish backstop. He said “there is a way” to deliver a deal through Parliament, but that it was “not made easier by attempts in Parliament to fetter the ability of the government to negotiate.”

Asked again about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, he said he acted “in complete conformity with the rules” while serving as Mayor of London.

Johnson: No Interest to Declare Over Businesswoman (10 a.m.)

The prime minister refused to engage with questions about his links to an American former model and entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri. The Sunday Times reported that Arcuri confided to friends that she was in a sexual relationship with Johnson while he was serving as Mayor of London.

He is alleged to have authorized taxpayer-funded sponsorship for Arcuri’s fledgling technology business and allowed her to accompany delegations on foreign visits despite her business being ineligible.

Johnson told the BBC simply that there had been no impropriety. “I am very, very proud of everything we did and everything I did as mayor of London,” he said. Asked if he had declared his links with Arcuri in the register of interests, he replied: “There was no interest to declare.”

Johnson Won’t Quit If Brexit Is Delayed (9:50 a.m.)

In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Boris Johnson suggested he wouldn’t resign if Brexit negotiations are extended beyond the Oct. 31 deadline, despite making it a key commitment to deliver the U.K.’s divorce from the EU by that date, without a deal if needed.

“I’ve undertaken to lead my country and party at a difficult time and I am going to do that,” Johnson said. He declined to comment on questions about whether he’d been in discussions with other EU leaders to ask one of them to veto any extension to the deadline. Instead he added, “I do think there is a good chance” of the U.K. reaching an agreement with the bloc.

The premier again defended his use of what critics say is inflammatory language in the Brexit debate. “Martial metaphors, military metaphors are very old standard parliamentary practice,” he said. Johnson said he thought “everybody” should calm down, adding that he was being a “model of restraint.”

“The best thing for the country and the best thing for people’s overall psychological health would be to get Brexit done.”

Expelled Tory Gauke Criticizes ‘Collusion’ Narrative (9 a.m.)

Former Justice Secretary David Gauke, expelled from the Tories for voting in favor of the Benn Act (see 8.30 a.m.), rejected the idea he’d worked with EU officials to draft the bill, and said the allegation was another example of Johnson’s office using inflammatory language.

“You have a very good example of a No. 10 briefing using the word collusion -- that’s a very loaded word itself -- and providing no evidence that there was anything supporting this statement,” Gauke told Sky News.

That “feeds into this narrative that anyone who doesn’t agree with No. 10 is somehow unpatriotic or betraying the country, or an enemy or walking the country to surrender.”

Hancock: ‘All Sides’ Must Moderate Language (8:45 a.m.)

Johnson’s team is facing persistent questions over his use of terms such as “surrender” and “capitulation” to describe the efforts of his opponents to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson’s critics say he is fueling abuse and escalating the risk of violence against MPs with his inflammatory words. The prime minister is refusing to back down, saying he won’t be bullied.

On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the use of the term “surrender” to describe a new law intended to ban a no-deal Brexit. But in a veiled rebuke to Johnson, he said “it’s incumbent on all sides” to moderate their language.

“All of us get over-excited from time to time,” Hancock told Sky News. “My judgment is we absolutely should use language that tries to bring people together.”

Tories Gather to ‘Get Brexit Done’ (8:30 a.m.)

Under the banner ‘Get Brexit Done’ the Tories are meeting in Manchester, northwest England, amid a fresh row over whether Johnson can get round a law instructing him to seek a delay to Brexit if he hasn’t reached a deal by Oct. 19.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab suggested that the government could use EU law to override the so-called Benn Act, passed earlier this month. Politicians who are seeking to stop Britain leaving the bloc without a deal have been accused of foreign collusion by using the French Embassy as a base for discussions.

In other developments on Sunday morning:

  • The government is committing to building 40 new hospitals, the kind of pledge that adds to the impression that it expects to fight an election soon.
  • Alongside domestic policy announcements this week, Johnson will also be spending considerable time on the phone to European leaders during the conference and Brexit negotiations will accelerate, his office said.
  • Johnson apologized to Queen Elizabeth II after the Supreme Court ruled that he shouldn’t have asked her to suspend Parliament, the Sunday Times reported.
  • Despite publicly saying it would back Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an interim prime minister in a government of national unity, the Scottish National Party is in secret talks to find an alternative, according to the Sunday Times.
  • Labour Treasury spokesman John McDonnell has written to the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill calling for an investigation into whether Tory Party donors who backed Johnson have a financial interest in the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal.

Earlier:

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