1. NEW YEAR’S HEAVE
Parliament is finally in recess and won’t return for more than a fortnight. MPs were notably de-mob happy yesterday in the chamber, from Home Office minister Victoria Atkins rendering the Speaker speechless with her cat’s name to Dawn Butler singing her own ‘Five Days To Christmas’. But as MPs enjoy a Christmas break, no one is under any illusion that they will need all their energy for the New Year and the Brexit battle ahead. Leavers and Remainers alike think they’ve got one more heave to get their way.
Justice Secretary David Gauke has again underlined his own opposition to any kind of ‘managed no-deal Brexit’, an idea he famously derided in Cabinet this week as a ‘unicorn’ (and which he revealed as his Secret Santa gift yesterday). Asked by the Standard earlier this week if he’d quit rather under such circumstances, Gauke replied that “many Cabinet ministers” think allowing no-deal would not be a responsible course of action. But on Nick Robinson’s BBC podcast, he’s gone further, saying “I think it would be very difficult for me in those circumstances.” Despite all the ridicule, Fraser Nelson says in the Telegraph today that “at least a dozen” Cabinet ministers are “ready to pursue no-deal”, including Jeremy Hunt, who backs a ‘World Trade Brexit’.
Of course the real danger is not of a ‘conscious’ decision (Gauke’s phrase) to opt for no-deal, but of an accidental no-deal. This is because the countdown clock of Article 50 means that leaving without agreement is, legally, the default option for March 29. But as ever with Brexit, what’s possible legally and what’s possible politically are two very different things. In fact, as I report HERE, Labour and Tory MPs are drafting a range of Parliamentary tactics to ensure no-deal is made impossible for Theresa May.
No.10 is more than aware that ‘guerilla’ warfare can be deployed next month. If May’s deal is defeated, a series of votes will set out if there is any Commons majority for an alternative (such as extending or revoking Article 50, a second referendum or some kind of customs-led option). If the PM were to ignore such non-binding votes, senior government sources have told me she would face a ‘rolling’ series of contempt motions that would force her hand. Just as importantly, they believe the Speaker would then be emboldened to include ‘in scope’ several wrecking amendments that could delay or disrupt key Brexit bills on trade, healthcare and immigration.
The no-deal rebels are even prepared to target the Finance Bill that in January sets income tax for next year, as well as ‘supply estimates’ needed in February to allow departmental spending. Yesterday, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill that would prevent May from raising any taxes in a no-deal scenario without consulting Parliament. Hardline Brexiteers will have smelled a rat as soon as they saw Letwin’s name on the amendment, given his under-the-radar role in being helpful to No.10. And it’s true that the more MPs think no-deal is impossible, the more Downing Street can warn the real choice will come down to May’s plan or no real Brexit at all. Get ready to fasten your seatbelts in January, folks.
2. GRAYLING SIN DRONE
So, Gatwick’s runway has reopened after drones caused the airport to shut down for more than a day. The UK’s second busiest airport now says 765 flights are scheduled for departure and arrival. Gatwick’s boss Chris Woodroofe said police had not yet found the drone operator, but police say it’s possible an environmental activist was responsible. New “mitigating measures” from the government and military gave the airport “confidence to reopen”, Woodroofe said.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was on the Today programme declaring he wanted a very long prison term for whoever was found responsible. Yet Grayling also seemed to set a fresh hare running by failing to rule out the possibility that a foreign government could be behind the incident. “I don’t want to speculate on that, we genuinely don’t know who it is,” he said when asked if a foreign state was responsible, adding it was “unlikely”. We publish Five Surprisingly Ingenious Ways To Shoot Down A Drone.
It was made clear yesterday the Gatwick incident was not a terrorist-inspired disruption. But we got a separate stark reminder from the Foreign Office yesterday that state actors really pose a serious threat. The UK and US took the unprecedented step of accusing hackers linked to the Chinese government of waging a sustained cyber-campaign focused on large-scale theft of commercial intellectual property. Jeremy Hunt it was “one of the most significant and widespread cyber-intrusions against UK and allies uncovered to date, targeting trade secrets and economies around the world”. China this morning rejected the ‘slanderous’ accusations, but the FT rightly splashes its front page on the story. It’s a timely reminder that it’s not just the Russians who are piling resources into cyber warfare.
Meanwhile, the Coroner at the inquest into the Westminster terror attack has told MI5 it should keep better records on the reasons for why it closes investigations into suspects like Khalid Masood (who ceased to be a ‘person of interest’ six years ago). MI5 has made clear it is not practicable to record the rationale every time they close such cases, but the Coroner said he didn’t think such cases were numerous enough to avoid ‘a short rationale’ for each. MI5 has until February 12 to respond. On hearing some of the facts about the security services’s workload and workings, the Coroner may well conclude that it really isn’t practicable to record every single closed case. Let’s see.
3. EDMUND BURKA?
The Telegraph reveals that Boris Johnson has been cleared by a QC-led inquiry of any breach of the Tory party’s code of conduct over his infamous article on the burka. The former Foreign Secretary was referred for investigation in August following outrage at his line that “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”. Critics claimed the article breached the party’s edict requiring MPs to ‘foster respect and tolerance’.
Johnson always argued that his whole piece was in fact a defence of women’s right to wear what they like, but that he made the argument in his typically provocative style. And the independent panel of lawyers which cleared him has now stated that it would be “unwise to censor excessively the language of party representatives or the use of satire to emphasise a viewpoint”. In his defence, Johnson had cited a high court judge who once ruled that free speech includes “the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence”.
It’s certainly arguable that the ‘letter box’ comparison is the kind of ‘satire’ that dehumanises Muslim women, that it hardly fosters respect or tolerance and that it does indeed ‘tend to provoke violence’ (especially given the rise in the number of women who have their burkas or hijabs ripped off their heads). But the panel doesn’t just give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, it positively praises him for fostering respect and tolerance. Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke once talked of ‘social freedom’, in which one person’s liberty should not be allowed to trespass on another’s. Boris had similar qualifications on the burka’s use, while asserting the right of Muslim women to wear what she likes “in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business”.
However, his critics, many of them in the Tory party, will claim that all the high-minded stuff is undermined by Johnson’s inability to resist a gag, however offensive or prone to being exploited by racists and extremists. His remark about May’s Brexit deal being akin to wrapping a ‘suicide vest’ around the UK was yet another example. As was his “satire” in a previous Spectator piece describing African citizens as having ‘watermelon smiles’. Johnson’s allies are now accusing party chairman Brandon Lewis of a ‘witchhunt’. Yet ultimately, Boris needs to work out whether he really is an edgy, erudite newspaper columnist or a statesman capable of leading the country.
4. DOG-GONE IT
The day after we learned Donald Trump was withdrawing US troops from Syria, it emerged he was also planning to halve the number of armed forces in Afghanistan. Both moves have prompted the resignation of General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as Defense Secretary. HuffPost US reports that Republicans are ‘distressed’ by Mattis’ decision, and many conservatives now say ‘it’s time to panic’.
No one can call Mattis a lily-livered liberal (his nickname stems from quotes such as “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”, and “a true warrior wears his enemy’s skin like a poncho”). In Kabul, the Today programme’s Martha Kearney quotes British military sources in Afghanistan who thought Mattis was “the last thread of sanity left” in the White House. BuzzFeed meanwhile reports that the first British government knew of the announcement on Sryia was when Trump tweeted it.
5. STEALTH FACTS
Using the final day of Parliamentary term to bury bad news is now as traditional as mince pies and the annual anticlimax over the John Lewis advert. Yesterday was no exception and we report on how funding for public health services like sexual health clinics and mother and baby support has been cut by £85m in an announcement “sneaked out” in a Written Ministerial Statement. The slashing of grants for councils will affect community and prevention services, including ‘stop smoking’ clinics, schemes to tackle obesity, and drug and alcohol misuse services for children and young people.
There’s lots of attacks this morning on Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies for calling for a sugar and salt tax. The Sun goes in with studs up, saying she’s guilty of ‘snobby hectoring’, but intriguingly the new-look Daily Mail actually quotes the National Obesity Forum’s Tam Fry saying the call is ‘music to my ears’. Others will point out that if we really cared about public health in the wider sense maybe we wouldn’t be cutting its funding.
2018 has been a heck of a ride at Westminster, and many of us are just thoroughly exhausted. This is the last WaughZone of the year as I’m taking a break until Parliament returns on January 7. I’d like to thank all our readers for their comments/tip offs/jokes sent via text, Whatsapp, email and phone over the past year. See you all the other side.
This week’s podcast is a special on what next for Parliament on Brexit. Hear Anand Menon, of UK in a Changing Europe, and Maddy Thimont Jack, of the Institute for Government, chat through all the options. There’s also the usual mad quiz, this time on ‘Politics 2018: What The Hell Happened And When?’ Click below or HERE on Audioboom.
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