What has been Whitehall chatter for some time is now becoming a widespread, public expectation: Brexit looks like being delayed, even for just a few weeks or months. Jeremy Hunt became the first Cabinet minister to let the cat out of the bag yesterday. Even the usual bromide from No.10 (we will leave on March 29 blah blah blah) wasn’t really a slapdown to the Foreign Secretary.
The Telegraph’s Steve Swinford (who is having an excellent war) reports that Sajid Javid has told colleagues he too expects a delay. Nearly a third of the Cabinet expect an extension to the Article 50 process to allow time needed to pass the required legislation. Intriguingly, Javid is said to have questioned the wisdom of Theresa May’s strategy of repeatedly saying we will be out of the EU next month. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom (who suggested February recess would be cancelled yesterday) warned the PM she may be ‘timed out’ if she returns with her revised plans on February 14. David Gauke went on record to the Tel to say he shares Hunt’s view.
But perhaps the most telling remarks came from backbench chief Sir Graham Brady to the BBC’s Nick Robinson podcast. “Once we’ve reached an agreement and we know the terms on which we’re leaving, if we decide that we need another two weeks in order to finish the necessary legislation through Parliament, I don’t think anybody’s going to be too worked up about that.” That’s the vital licence May needs from backbench Brexiteers, for a short ‘technical’ delay, to get this past Parliament. MPs will need to vote for any statutory instrument that changes Exit Day in legislation. Hardliners and even non-hardliners will resist (Julian Lewis will be furious), but with Labour votes, May should get the extension through.
The EU will probably grant a short extension, yet the Guardian’s Brussels correspondent had what felt to me like one of the most important stories yesterday. EU officials fear May is setting the UK on course for a no-deal exit at the end of June, because she lacks the political courage to ask for the longer Brexit delay they believe she needs. As I say on our podcast today, for the first time I can imagine May actually going for a managed no-deal this summer. And Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael, who knows how fractured governments work, told CommonsPeople that if May returns empty handed from Brussels next month, the Cabinet has to step up. “You have to look to the likes of Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, they have to really step up to the plate at that point if we are to avoid no-deal.” Carmichael rightly says the battle then won’t be in the voting lobbies, it will be in the “raw politics around the Cabinet table”.
Meanwhile, stockpiling for no-deal is in vogue. Anecdotally, I hear of mothers stockpiling baby formula, dads getting in tinned food, you name it. The Guardian spotted a new government technical notice telling schools to be ‘flexible’ about fresh food in school dinners, emergency ‘trauma packs’ are being stockpiled by pharma firms, and even Magnums and Ben and Jerry’s are being squirrelled away by Unilever. Last night on Question Time, Brexit-backing journalist Camilla Tominey declared: “Some people are stockpiling hysteria, I’m stockpiling optimism”. Oh, and the Spectator’s Charles Moore tells us maybe it’s time for a “Brexit recipe book” to cope with no-deal fresh food shortages, a bit like “comforting wartime rationing ones, full of bright ideas for dull things.”
2. MANN OVERBOARD
The backlash yesterday was strong and swift from Labour MPs who felt that their colleagues had made a big error in considering Brexit-linked cash offers from the government. Some MPs in the north (often former coal-mining areas) think their Leave voters deserve more investment. But Anna Turley was pretty forthright, attacking “a shabby attempt to bribe MPs into voting for her dreadful deal”. Neil Coyle accused fellow MPs of being “gullible” and David Lammy went further: “Socialists my arse. Cowards and facilitators.” All of which will be seen as ‘job-done’ by May allies who want to exploit divisions in Labour to get her deal through Parliament.
What was fascinating was Jeremy Corbyn’s response. Unsurprisingly, he said a Labour government was the best solution, but he was careful to add that his MPs were right to “demand appropriate resources for their constituencies…particularly from mining areas.” Leading Labour Leaver John Mann yesterday insisted he and others seeking a national rebuilding fund were not taking part in a ‘transactional’ or constituency-by-constituency operation. However, Frank Field told Newsnight that the pork-barrel was just “how politics works”
Yet Corbyn’s response, as well as his decision not to sack the five frontbenchers who abstained on Yvette Cooper’s ‘delay Brexit’ amendment this week, showed he will turn a blind eye to accommodate Labour Leave MPs in a bid to prevent deeper party splits. Those MPs had their own tight whipping operation this week, with some saying Mann was acting as chief whip and shop steward combined. The bigger picture was that several Shadow Cabinet ministers, including John Healey, Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett and Angela Rayner, were very wary of Cooper’s plan.
Some sources say that it’s not a coincidence that three of Rayner’s shadow education team, Tracy Brabin, Mike Kane and Emma Lewell-Buck, all abstained. Still, they’re quite an eclectic bunch (Kane was a big David Miliband fan) and the one thing they really have in common is that they all have lots of Leave voters in their seats. Just as importantly, no Shadow Cabinet minister wants to leave big holes in their team, with a snap election still a live possibility.
What will be interesting is just how well-disciplined the 25-strong Labour leave group (14 voted against Cooper, 11 abstained) are in the next round of votes. They certainly look like they’ve dug in. And they know that in this hung Parliament, any grouping with more than two dozen members can exert huge leverage. It’s too simplistic to say they will act as a counterbalance to the 25 hardcore ERG members. Some of their views overlap (a customs union would look like ‘fake’ Brexit), some don’t (few Labour Leave MPs back a no-deal). But they are a force to be reckoned with.
3. PIQUED CAP
Being a minister in the May government is often more of a curse than a blessing. But amid the uncertainty over Brexit, some of them have taken the chance to simply be more candid about what they truly believe. On Wednesday (picked up shrewdly by the Indy), universities and science minister Chris Skidmore told MPs he was lobbying Sajid Javid over a planned ceiling on foreign worker salaries, post-Brexit. “The £30,000 cap on salary can be seen as quite detrimental to the science community,” he said. Many will agree with him, but it was bold nonetheless to say so publicly.
As if to underline the divergent views in government, Chris Grayling has told The House magazine that his own pro-Brexit views are the real reason he gets so much flak for everything else. Grayling says: “Because I’m a prominent Brexiteer in the cabinet who backs the prime minister’s deal, I’m a lightning rod for the anti-Brexit brigade”. Critics swiftly pounced to say that perhaps his nickname ‘failing Grayling’ is more due to his record on train chaos, probation blunders, no-deal lorry park and ferry farces in Kent. Still, Grayling also blames the RMT rail union for stoking calls for him to quit. “Inevitably, from an organised left-wing trade union, you’re going to get some missiles fired. But I’m going to do what I think is right.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Yes, the icy weather is snow joke for some people stranded. But watch this golden retriever enjoy a little white relief.
4. KINDERGARTEN CHOP
Our ‘What It’s Like To Lose Your…’ series on the impact of funding cuts continues and today we focus on the loss of a local nursery. The Dalmarnock Legacy Hub, built as part of the 2014 Commonwealth Games pledge to regenerate the east end of Glasgow, shut its doors on Friday. Suddenly leaving working parents scrambling to find childcare miles away.
The think tank Centre for Cities says Glasgow City Council has seen budgets fall by 23% in 10 years, but the parents affected are not impressed at the authority’s attempt to offer alternative arrangements. “All I’ve done since then is cry,” said Carolanne Mccracken, whose daughter had been at the nursery since she was 10 months old.
5. MARIE MURDERERS
The Times has rightly splashed its front page on a report into the death of the late Marie Colvin, the fearless war correspondent of its sister paper, The Sunday Times. An American court has found the Syrian regime liable for Colvin’s murder and imposed punitive damages of $300 million. Judge Amy Jackson ruled that the Assad regime deliberately targeted Colvin in an artillery attack to silence her reporting from the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr in the city of Homs in 2012.
Lawyers will now try to track down the cash from the reputed $1bn that the Assad family are believed to have invested around the world, including in properties and business. Save Rosamund Pike, the actress who portrays Colvin in a new movie about her life, called the court ruling “a very, very, very good day” for justice and for Marie’s family.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. This week we’re joined by Alistair Carmichael, the former Deputy Chief Whip and Scottish Secretary of the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition, and by Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government. We look back at the past week and forward to that all-important Feb 14 Brexit vote day. Click HERE to hear on Audioboom and below for iTunes.
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