The Waugh Zone Friday February 8, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Dublin is the place to be today as Theresa May heads out for talks and a dinner with Irish PM Leo Varadkar, and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox meets his counterpart Seamas Woulfe for lunch. With May doubling down on ‘legal assurances’ needed to win DUP and Tory backing for the vexed Northern Ireland backstop, both meetings will be crucial to any breakthrough. Still, today’s meetings will be exploratory rather than revelatory, and all the hard yards have yet to be done in Brussels.

For MPs in London, the most important part of a joint statement between May and Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday was the final line: “the Prime Minister and the President will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions”. That was a clear signal that several weeks are needed to thrash out a new deal and ministers have privately suggested they think the real ‘meaningful vote’ will now be delayed to sometime in March.

There’s the obvious danger that next week’s Brexit votes will be supremely meaningless gestures to give MPs the illusion that they are loved, rather than being strung along. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom confirmed the amendments on a neutral motion will take place on Thursday February 14. But the Valentine’s Day event now feels as sincere as a bloke grabbing a bunch of wilted, late-night service station flowers to reassure his loved one he hadn’t really forgotten their big day. Few MPs think they can get a majority for any binding amendment (though I understand Labour may try to pull a new stunt) until Exit Day really is very close indeed.

Speaker Bercow “noted with dismay” yesterday that Leadsom had on Wednesday night. originally failed to include any vote on February 14 in her draft business, but was pleased she had changed her mind. Leadsom said Bercow had ‘muddied the waters’ with his intervention, to which he angrily replied: “Nobody is going to tell this Speaker how to stand up for and persistently champion the rights of Parliament.” None of which bodes well for the government trying to get its way procedurally on Brexit.

One of the most interesting things about yesterday was that Jeremy Corbyn’s soft Brexit offer was raised by EU chiefs in their meetings with May. Now, this may just be wishful thinking on their part, but they clearly felt the Labour leader’s letter offered a way through the deadlock. Yes, there are some unicornish elements to Labour’s plans but they are seen as a basis for further talks. And given that Labour’s position has evolved after what I’m told is close contacts with Brussels insiders, there’s a hope that May could somehow pivot toward it as a last resort.

The PM said she wanted a ‘stable’ majority for any deal, and European Parliament Brexit point man Guy Verhofstadt said “majorities of six, seven, eight or nine votes in the House of Commons” were not good enough. He even explicitly praised Corbyn: “We welcome also the letter that Jeremy Corbyn has written today to Mrs May to offer such a cross-party exit.” On Newsnight, Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, vice chair of the Parliament’s Liberal group, also backed Corbyn’s move but warned “it’s not a tradition in British politics to make cross party alliances”.

No.10 has been studious in not dissing Corbyn’s plan, even though it’s obvious that May retains her red line that a customs union would prevent an independent trade policy. Officials told us the PM was looking ‘with interest’ at the Labour proposals, but they added pointedly: “It’s evident during the course of the afternoon that the letter itself has started a fairly lively debate in Jeremy Corbyn’s party.”

And it’s true that the backlash was strong yesterday from Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna and others, with Owen Smith even threatening to quit if his party supported May’s plan. More tricky for the leadership was the move by Matthew Pennycook to claim that if Corbyn’s demands were not accepted in full, the party would move to a second referendum demand. Keir Starmer insisted the option was still open and John McDonnell tried to reiterate that this morning saying a People’s Vote was “not killed, not at all”.

Preparations for a no-deal Brexit are intensifying in London, Dublin and Brussels. We report today on 30 of 130 demands from American lobbyists from any future UK-US trade deal. We all know about chlorinated chicken, but corporates have also asked to US Department of Trade for changes in NHS drug rules, weaker data protection, carcinogens in pistachio nuts, lowering food safety standards and fresh ways to sue the British government. It’s quite a wish-list.

The FT reports that Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill is meanwhile drawing up a ‘Project After’ plan to cut taxes and tariffs to give a boost to the economy should we drop out without a deal. Business Insider reveals that the Home Office has failed to hit its target of 1,000 new customs and immigration staff it promised to hire last year in anticipation of new border checks when the UK leaves the EU. Many applicants are still being interviewed and won’t be in place for Exit Day.

Tom Watson gave the government both barrels in the Commons yesterday with an Urgent Question on our story that that free mobile phone roaming would end under a no-deal scenario. Note that Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright confirmed he couldn’t guarantee no new charges, and even used the threat to warn MPs to back the PM’s deal. Meanwhile, we report Thanet district council has pulled at the last minute a vote which could have sunk Chris Grayling’s plan to run no-deal Brexit ferries from Ramsgate. In a great irony, the council blames Tory austerity for the need for cuts to funding the port.

Watch this lovely video about Anfield Road primary school, located in one of the more deprived areas of Liverpool.

In Monday night’s PLP meeting, several MPs who complained about Labour’s handling of anti-semitism stressed that “this is not part of a vile plot to undermine Jeremy” (as Margaret Hodge put it). But some activists in Luciana Berger’s local party in Liverpool Wavertree seem to feel exactly that way. They’ve tabled two motions of no confidence for this Sunday, claiming Berger is “continually using the media to criticise the man we all want to be Prime Minister.” In a statement, the MP stood by her fight for more transparency on anti-semitism, and by her view that Brexit would be a ‘disaster’.

She’s had lots of support, with Ed Miliband making a rare foray into the subject to express his backing. Jess Phillips put it best perhaps when she pointed out a pregnant, Jewish woman who had been subjected to violent racist threats now faced more abuse to her and her family. A Labour spokesman said: “Members have a right to hold their MPs to account but of course no one should be criticised for speaking out against anti-semitism.” As I reported earlier this week, deselection more widely is very much back on the agenda. Liverpudlian John McDonnell suggested on the Today programme that activists may be upset more at Berger’s refusal to rule out leaving the party. His message to her: “Just tell people you are not supporting a breakaway party, you are not jumping ship”. Cue backlash from Umunna and others suggesting the Shadow Chancellor was victim-blaming.

The world would be a poorer place without newspaper campaigns prodding politicians into action. Today, after its Family Matters campaign, the Times (whose brilliant legal editor Frances Gibb retired after 40 years last night) rightly takes credit for plans for new laws to enable couples to divorce quickly without a “blame game” that damages children as much as their parents. David Gauke is preparing a bill that will end the fault-based divorce system. The new law will allow couples to divorce without making accusations of bad behaviour, by giving notice that a marriage has broken down irretrievably. Sounds a bit like a no-deal Brexit, whether you call it ‘clean’ or not.


Our latest Commons People podcast is out. Hear us chinwag with think tank chief Anand Menon about the PM’s Brussels trip, Tusk hellfire and Corbyn’s Brexit gambit. We naturally discuss our two no-deal scoops from the week (on Fox’s zero tariff plan and Wright’s end to free mobile roaming). Plus there’s a quiz on Northern Ireland and politics. Click HERE to listen on audioboom and below for iTunes.

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