1. JULIAN CALENDAR
Theresa May and her Cabinet are back on the No.10 PR ‘grid’. Today is ‘Brexit for the whole UK day’ as more than 30 ministers “fan out” (such an exciting, dramatic verb) across the country to sell the PM’s deal. New Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay is in Peterborough, Philip Hammond is at a school in Surrey and, wait for it, Liz Truss is visiting a butcher in East Anglia (can’t wait to see her Insta-close ups of dead meat). It all looks like a weird displacement activity for a Government that is sticking its fingers in its ears ahead of defeat on Tuesday.
The plain fact is that the Brexiteers and the DUP are unbiddable, unshakeable and unpersuadeable. The usual tricks of last minute concessions just aren’t working. Last night was a case in point, as the new amendment to give Stormont and MPs a say over the customs ‘backstop’ was tabled by state-sanctioned dissidents Hugo Swire, Richard Graham and Bob Neill. Arlene Foster swiftly Tweeted ‘domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it’. On the Today programme, Swire himself admitted his proposal was not the same as a proper exit mechanism or deadline. “It’s not the same, it doesn’t just automatically time expire. But it is better than the current situation…this is about the nearest we feel we can probe.” It’s not so much a ‘Plan B’, as a ‘Plan A, subsection IV)’
Chief Whip Julian Smith said last night there is no ‘Plan B’. “There is no plan, no plan for a vote loss,” he told ITV News, as part of an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at how the whips are trying to win MPs round. Many ministers are baffled why Smith thought it was a good idea to have him captured on camera trying, and failing, to persuade Philip Davies to back the deal. I’m told No.10 were only told about the TV project a week after it started, which has certainly raised eyebrows.
Still, no matter how good (or bad) the whips’ sales pitch is, it’s what they are selling that matters most and the product is just not going to change before Tuesday. After Sir Graham Brady urged the idea of postponing the vote, all sorts of mad ideas have been flying around in Government about how to do that (a new business motion on Monday, or Michael Gove simply talking out the debate at 7pm, without a vote, on Tuesday). Believe it or not, some May loyalists are even predicting the loss could be kept down to 30, a number they say they can use as ‘base camp’ to scale the mountain of victory in a second vote just before Christmas. But without the political oxygen supply of the DUP, it’s that final ascent that will be the most dangerous for the PM.
2. THE GAUKEWARD SQUAD
Privy Counsellors attended a confidential ‘no deal’ briefing by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat yesterday. Some came away more convinced than ever that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would indeed lead to chaos. But some former Tory ministers were totally unimpressed and felt sorry for the civil servants who were being forced to sell the warnings of apocalypse. One attendee confided: “It was not so much a privy council briefing, more a briefing destined for the privy [that’s a toilet, younger readers]. I wasn’t persuaded to change my vote, put it that way.”
Yet while the Brexiteers are still firm in their claims that this is all more Project Fear, three senior Cabinet ministers yesterday made plain during an ‘informal’ gathering in No.10 that any move down the ‘no deal’ or WTO route would be unthinkable. David Gauke, Philip Hammond and Greg Clark all rammed home the point, I’m told. Hammond used his Commons Brexit speech to explicitly warn that the consequences for industry and business were ‘too awful to contemplate’. Clark went public in saying it no deal would be ‘crazy’. And during the Cabinet get together, Gauke was particularly scathing. It was a stark reminder to the PM that it’s not just Brexiteers who are ready to quit the Government if they don’t like the outcome of next week.
Labour has been pinning much of its own approach on the assumption that May has always been bluffing about no deal (and to be fair May herself has stopped saying ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’). Keir Starmer certainly thinks that. And the Times reports Labour MPs have been sent a note declaring no deal is ‘a political hoax designed to threaten rather than persuade’. The ever-savvy Francis Elliott also reveals that Mike Hatchett, a former Brexit Department official who is now Labour’s director of policy and research, has convinced Jeremy Corbyn that the Government will never allow the UK to crash out of the EU without an agreement.
In the meantime, councils (as much as Whitehall) have to prepare for the worst. The Guardian has a startling Kent County Council report warning about rubbish not being collected, children unable to take exams and rubbish piling up on streets. And away from the Parliamentary gridlock, there would be the real thing on the roads surrounding Dover.
3. TRUCK STOP
At last month’s Cabinet meeting to agree May’s Brexit plan, Health Secretary Matt Hancock startled some colleagues by saying his permanent secretary had warned people could die due to medicine shortages in a ‘no deal’ outcome. This morning, Hancock confirmed on the Today programme that contingency plans included chartering flights to import vital drugs, though he was a tad vague on detail (“we are working on ensuring we have aviation capacity”). Lorries carrying medical supplies would be fast-tracked through Dover (“if there’s a serious disruption at the border we will have prioritisation and prioritisation will include medicines and medical devices”). He also confirmed a Times story that pharmacists will be allowed to ‘ration’ drugs prescribed by GPs.
Meanwhile, there’s fresh tension over the 10-year NHS long-term plan, which itself has been delayed by Brexit. The Guardian reports that NHS chief exec Simon Stevens has irritated ministers by refusing to give explicit guarantees that the funding package would solve key issues of concern to voters. He thinks the £20.5bn more by 2023-24 is not enough for hospitals to get waiting times back on track after years of struggling to meet them and simultaneously honour headline-grabbing promises May and Philip Hammond have made to expand and improve cancer and mental health care.
All this as new analysis shows GP services are still really struggling. Official figures revealed that five million patients a month are waiting more than three weeks for a GP appointment. A further million people are waiting four weeks between booking an appointment and seeing the doctor, according to data released by the NHS for the first time. Oh and there are now 1,000 fewer family doctors than when ministers pledged to recruit 5,000 more in 2015.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom show how to do a proper ‘flounce’.
4. PHONE-Y WAR
The massive O2 data outage yesterday left lots of politicians and reporters bereft, not least because they were suddenly deprived of their Whatsapp group chats and Twitter habit. But the expired software certificate that caused the problem was also a reminder that just three firms, Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei dominate the networks on which mobile phone firms rely. The rise of Huawei in particular has caused huge concerns among Western security and intelligence agencies that China is expanding its spying network into new 5G comms. The arrest of senior exec Meng Wanzhou in Canada, and the resulting global stock market fear of a US-China trade war, has also underlined that this is no ordinary company.
Today, local media report that Japan is set to ban government use of Huawei products. I remember George Osborne on a trip to China once saying the UK should welcome Huawei, even though our Intelligence and Security Committee raised concerns. I’m told Osborne privately ridiculed Boris Johnson when a deal fell through to get Huawei to provide infrastructure for the London Underground’s mobile network. Still, the firm has enormous clout and cash (check out all those ads on telly pushing its latest phone as a Christmas present). Some in Whitehall believe that public worries about Facebook and Google ‘spying’ really ought to pale into comparison with the real thing.
5. TOMMY, THE MUSICAL
In a normal week the latest implosion of UKIP, with even Nigel Farage finally quitting the party, would have received more attention. Current leader Gerard Batten’s link to far-right racist ‘Tommy Robinson’ means the Kippers are now too far gone for even for Farage. Yes, that’s Nigel Farage, the man who posed in front of THAT ‘Breaking Point’ poster of migrants in the 2016 EU referendum. Nigel Farage, who back in 1999 was photographed meeting the head of research of the racist BNP. Paul Nuttall this morning became the latest to quit the party in protest.
PoliticsHome has a long read on how UKIP got into this mess. It includes a suggestion that ‘Tommy Robinson’ is being ‘groomed’ (how ironic that word is) to take over as leader himself. Batten says that potential Ukip leaders need a “track record of loyalty” to the party - including membership for at least five years, experience fighting several elections and time serving in an official capacity. “I don’t think Tommy Robinson is cut out for the leadership of the party anyway. That’s not what he does. He’s more of a maverick.” Sounded like a non-denial denial to me.
If you really want to know what could happen in the Big Brexit Vote next week, our Commons People podcast special features the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler on all the permutations facing Theresa May. You’ll learn a heck of a lot about the EU Withdrawal Bill, and why the very concept of a ‘meaningful vote’ is such a rare Parliamentary device. Listen on audioboom HERE.
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