The five things you need to know on Wednesday, January 25…
1) FORTHRIGHT FORTNIGHT?
It’s PMQs day again and as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn square up over the despatch box a Brexit bust-up is inevitable. And with by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, I’d be surprised if the February 23 contests didn’t get a namecheck either (May could talk nuclear and Nato, Corbyn could talk NHS and the fact the Tories are admitting they won’t win Stoke).
Government sources now suggest a short bill triggering Article 50 will be introduced tomorrow and then passed through the Commons in just a fortnight. The Lords will get the European Union Withdrawal Bill in mid-February. There could even be a fast-tracking, to cheer up Eurosceptic backbenchers. Note that the PM has always talked of triggering Article 50 ‘by the end of March’, not actually on March 31. The Telegraph claims she will bring the date forward by two weeks and spark the exit in ‘mid-March’.
Some MPs say the Government is just not being forthright enough about its plans. Yet David Davis pointed out last week that May’s speech ‘is the plan’. And the Supreme Court stressed that a simple clause (not a 'White Paper') in Cameron’s referendum bill would have avoided the need for this new legislation. So ministers are in no mood to give any more information beyond May’s position statement. They note that the pound went down after the court ruling yesterday, because it undermined the certainty of her speech.
Bafflingly, there’s an idea around that the ‘White Paper rebels’ - Tory Remainers who back Labour’s call for details in amendments - could somehow scupper the Government. But as I’ve said before, May’s usual Commons majority of 14 is actually a ‘Brexit majority’ of about 30, thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party and others. It was no coincidence DD yesterday repeatedly reassured Northern Irish MPs that the Irish border would remain unchanged.
Labour’s painful splits on the bill are unavoidable and the timing of all this could not be worse in Leave-voting Copeland and Stoke. Shadow Cabinet sources tell me they expect a three-line whip to be imposed to back the bill, despite all their reasoned amendments. Keir Starmer blogs for HuffPost HERE on why “triggering Article 50 is just the start, not the end of the process”. And this is where the real action will be, on the votes on the actual Brexit deal hammered out with Brussels.
The programme motion on the timing of this bill will be interesting. But the real deadline is not May’s self-imposed March 2017 deadline for triggering Article 50. It is the resulting, immoveable March 2019 deadline for withdrawal. And immoveable deadlines are troublesome in politics. Just as the Jubilee Line extension had to be built in time for the Millennium, just as Olympic stadiums have to be ready for their games, the UK has to quit the EU two years after May fires the starting gun. That gives the EU27 a huge advantage in the ‘bad deal or no deal’ game of brinkmanship.
DD yesterday said he hadn’t given any thought to ensuring our Parliament voted on the final deal around the same time as the European Parliament (possibly six months before March 2019). But time is not on the Government’s side - nor the Opposition’s. It is on the side of Brussels, Berlin, Paris et al.
2) LORDS, HAW, HAW
Before Tony Blair’s reforms, Supreme Court judges used to be known as Law Lords. After their 8-3 verdict yesterday, this time Lord Chancellor Liz Truss was swift to praise their “integrity”. David Davis praised them too in the Commons, saying the judges were “not the Enemies of the People, quite the converse”. Given his civil liberties credentials, it's safe to assume DD meant that the legal eagles were the friends of the people, rather than saying they were ‘the people of the enemies’.
The Daily Mail, which famously came up with that splash after the original High Court case, headlined yesterday’s Mailonline piece thus: “Yet Again The Elite Show Their Contempt For Brexit Voters!” Wait till they find out that the Law Society launched a ‘Brexit toolkit’ to help schools teach pupils that unelected judges really did matter in a democracy.
But the Spectator’s Steerpike points out that of the three judges who actually sided with the Government, two of them (Lord Carnwath and Lord Reed) had been given a ‘five-star’ and ‘four-star’ ‘Europhile rating’ by the Mail. Funnily enough, they weren’t Lord Haw Haws, after all.
As for the Lords more widely, there are dark warnings that the other unelected arm of our constitution should not block Brexit. Labour’s Lord (David) Blunkett told their lordships such a thing would be ‘unthinkable’. Tory sources are again threatening to flood the Lords with peers. And the Telegraph’s Chris Hope quotes a source saying peers will be given enough time to debate the Article 50 bill: “We will let the Lords talk until they wet themselves”. Yerrgh.
3) BREXIT HEALTH WARNING
Jeremy Hunt’s appearance before the Health Select Committee yesterday was notable for the way Brexit dominated. First he admitted that it was ‘likely’ the European Medicines Agency would quit the UK once we quit the EU, a move that could put us in the ‘second rank’ in access to new life-saving drugs. It would also lead to the loss of 900 jobs.
Then Hunt said his own department was losing 500 staff but would be hiring 200 more to deal with Brexit. And he had another bombshell: the Queen’s Speech bill to curb ‘health tourism’ was being shelved because of Brexit was a priority (which seems odd as many foreign nationals accused of not paying their healthcare bills are from non-EU states).
But there are Brexit upsides, this former Remainer argued, including on sugary drinks and food. He said that once we were outside the EU single market, the UK could ask food manufacturers to clearly label the number of teaspoons of sugar in their products. What was signally missing in all of this however was a pledge to give the NHS £350m a week…
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this utterly brilliant video from the Government of the Netherlands, welcoming Donald Trump.
4) SCHOOL SQUEEZE
Education is slowly going back up the political agenda. Today Labour has an Opposition Day motion seizing on the NAO’s warning of cuts and on HuffPost’s reports of Tory backbench unease over the new school funding formula. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has blogged for us on how the Tories have broken their manifesto pledge that “the amount of money following your child will be protected”.
The BBC underlined the point this morning with a report on state grammar heads asking parents to to make up the shortfall in cash. The head of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, Tim Gartside, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he and his governors were considering asking for voluntary contributions of £30 or £40 pounds a month from parents if the cuts took place. Other heads threaten the same, but Altrincham matters because it’s in the constituency of a certain Mr Graham Brady - chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee. Watch out Justine Greening.
The strange thing is that until Monday night Labour had planned its second Opposition day debate to be on disability benefit cuts. PoliticsHome reports Mencap and Mind are ‘disappointed’ at the late switch and some claim that Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams decided to pull the debate after a robust exchange of views with John McDonnell.
The Shadow Chancellor last night had a neat soundbite, attacking the Government's 'Charter for Alternative Facts' after the Treasury dumped the OBR as the referee on its fiscal rules. But in other news, I'm told there's growing unease about Labour's lack of preparedness for a snap election.
5) GREEN DAY
The Goverment yesterday published a warning to children and the elderly not to exert themselves too much outdoors amid a high alert on pollution levels. Our filthy air really is becoming a thing (though all those trendy wood-burning stoves aren’t helping, a new academic study shows). So far, Theresa May shows no sign of shifting from the Osborne-inspired backtrack on Cameroon environment pledges. All that ‘green crap’ appears to remain the mantra.
But over in the US, Donald Trump really isn’t messing about. On his first day in office, the White House web page on climate change was deleted. Yesterday he signed orders to resume a new oil pipeline to create ‘good construction jobs’.
And the US Environmental Protection Agency, soon to be headed by a climate change ‘sceptic’, was yesterday ordered not to issue any new grants or even press releases. “No social media will be going out. A Digital Strategist will be coming on board to oversee social media,” staff were told. But we also report that there are rogue green government tweeters. The Badlands (great name) National Park in South Dakota fired of a series of tweets pointing out how real climate change was. The tweets were then deleted. ‘Vladmir Putin would be proud,’ the Democrats tell us.
If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Paul Waugh (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ned Simons (email@example.com), Martha Gill (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Owen Bennett (email@example.com)