Power Has Drained From The Commons. So Who Will Keep Johnson In Check?

It's going to be a blue Christmas for Labour but will it be a blue decade?

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Black-eye Friday

As MPs head off for their Christmas break, the feeling that power has suddenly drained away from Westminster is all too palpable. But even when they return in January, it’s obvious that the Commons will matter much less than it has for most of the past decade.

Today’s huge, thumping majority of 124 votes for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill underlined in dramatic fashion just how dominant this Boris Johnson government is going to be over the next four or five years.

Within a matter of a few weeks we have gone from knife-edge votes to steamroller results. Barring some issue that really upsets the European Research Group’s 40-plus members, every single Commons vote will now be a foregone conclusion.

What made today’s majority even larger was the fact that more than 30 Labour MPs defied their own whip by abstaining (shadow cabinet ministers Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett among them) or voting for (Sarah Champion, Rosie Cooper, Jon Cruddas, Toby Perkins, Grahame Morris, Emma Lewell Buck) the government’s bill.‌

It’s perfectly possible that lifelong Eurosceptics like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could resume their own rebellious conduct once they step aside in March. Labour’s next leader will be hoping that on non-Brexit issues, party discipline will return but I wouldn’t necessarily bank on it if the PLP feels the choice of the members once again fails to match the realworld of the voters.

Corbyn looked grimly alone once more today as he tried to reheat the dishes served up in the election campaign. As the Labour leader sat down after his opening contribution to the debate, a Tory backbencher interrupted the tumbleweed moment with a heckle of “don’t all cheer at once!”. And when that 358-234 vote was read out, Johnson’s loyal lieutenant Nigel Adams couldn’t resist ramming home the victory: “Back of the net!”

The subsequent programme motion, fast-tracking the bill in just three days in January, unsurprisingly creates exactly the same timeframe that was deemed too fast by temporary prime minister Oliver Letwin and others in October.

I’m told on very good authority that the Lords will get a bit more time (they do actually scrutinise things on the red benches) but the date for Royal Assent has been fixed in government for January 23. That gives enough time for the EU to do its own ratification and 11pm January 31 will be the historic point at which the UK finally ‘gets Brexit done’, or at least the divorce bit.‌

Of course, the government’s biggest task over the next 12 months will be to hammer out a detailed UK-EU trade deal before the end-of-2020 deadline it has set itself. As the British Chambers of Commerce warned today, if a comprehensive deal is not sorted in time, “businesses could once again face a cliff-edge – and seismic changes to trading conditions equivalent to a no-deal exit”.‌

As for Labour, there were some leadership try-outs by Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer during the debate today. But for Corbyn it felt like the political equivalent of ‘Black-Eye Friday’ (so-called because revellers pile out of their workplaces with a few too many drinks inside them) and he was shown no mercy by either the Tories or some on his own side.

It remains to be seen just how many years Labour’s hangover from the 2019 general election result will last. But on Brexit at least, the real action will now take place in Brussels and Whitehall meeting rooms, not in Westminster. Under Blair and Brown, the rows took place around the cabinet table not in the voting lobbies, and that may happen again.

As we end this decade, I can’t help also reflecting that it’s ten long years since I started the UK’s first political newsletter. This is my last one of the 2010s, but rest assured I’ll be back in 2020. Thanks for all your texts, emails, phone calls and tipoffs. I really couldn’t – and wouldn’t – do this without you all.

Quote Of The Day

“History will record that the first act of this new Parliament, in its earliest days, was to break the ice floes and find a new passage through to unsuspected oceans of opportunity.”

Boris Johnson feels the heavy hand of history on his shoulder as he starts to get Brexit ‘done’.

Friday Cheat Sheet

Chancellor Sajid Javid announced that Andew Bailey has been appointed the new governor of the Bank of England. The FT reported today that LSE director Minouche Shafik was rejected “partly as a result of her critical views on Brexit”.

Clive Lewis announced he was standing for the Labour leadership, calling for “real democracy” in the party. Given the way many local parties feel bruised by recent key safe seat selections, that could get some traction. But MPs think member-led policies like ‘abolish Eton’ prove the drawbacks of handing over too much power to the grassroots.‌

Dominic Cummings is paid a maximum of £99,000 a year, new figures showed. That feels like a snip given that Lee Cain, No.10’s director of comms is paid at least £44,000 more. Cummings could be leaving the government in the spring if he can’t get a family-friendly contract to reduce his hours, the i reports. Once Brexit has finally been delivered on January 31, the PM’s chief adviser plans to take a leave of absence in February for a long-delayed operation.

A woman who lost a wedding ring in a ballot box after it slipped off her finger while she was voting has been reunited with the precious gold band. She spotted a social media post from Trafford council that alerted the public the ring had been found.

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