1. UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
With just five days to go before one of the most important Parliamentary votes in recent British history, the government is starting to admit it will lose. Having refused to engage with what happens after a defeat, this week we saw No.10 actually utter the words “in the event that we lose the meaningful vote…”. And on Question Time last night, James Cleverly was asked directly if the government would win on Tuesday. “I suspect we might not,” the Tory vice chairman admitted. Having postponed this entire vote, here we have a senior Conservative saying he ’suspects’ his government will lose again. And it didn’t sound like expectation management, just under-pressure candour.
That’s not to say Downing Street have given up hope, and winning back the support of people like George Freeman and Trudy Harrison is helpful. But the main strategy now is to get the numbers down to a level that allow the possibility of squeaking victory in a second vote. The plan seems to be to create a ladder out of this for Tory MPs by letting them register their protest, then claim credit for any subsequent concessions. It is of course a very risky game indeed, not least with a hard core of European Research Group MPs maintaining their discipline and nerve.
That’s precisely why Nicky Morgan tells Chopper’s Brexit podcast that the way out is to abandon the DUP and hardline Brexiteers and instead win the support of Labour MPs who back a Norway-style deal (note that Owen Jones yesterday said it may be the ‘least worst’ option). Of course, May would have to abandon her central red line on free movement, but backers of the EEA model think that’s better than the risk of losing Brexit completely through any new referendum. The PM actually talked about Brexit to union leaders Len McCluskey and Tim Roache yesterday. The approach was on the phone, lasted just 10 minutes and was months (if not years) overdue, but it was a signal that she wants the support of those on the left who don’t want to overturn the referendum but want to protect jobs.
If the Commons somehow voted for a Norway plan, it would of course require more time to negotiate, but Brussels may agree an extension of Article 50 if there was at least a settled view of Parliament. This morning, Jeremy Hunt on Today said “I’m absolutely not accepting that we won’t win this vote” before then making plain the bigger threat was no-Brexit rather than no-deal. In fact he appeared to concede that the Commons majority against no-deal highlighted this week would indeed force May to delay Brexit. It was “very unrealistic to think Parliament wouldn’t find a way” to stop no-deal, he said. Add in Corbyn yesterday repeating the Starmer plan to extend Article 50, and you can see why it’s the new ‘backstop’ of 2019.
Hunt made clear however that “delaying to have a second referendum is not an option”. And on our CommonsPeople podcast this week (click below), ex-No.10 legislative affairs director Nikki da Costa (who has a withering verdict on John Bercow in the Tel today) reveals: “I can absolutely categorically say that she’s extraordinarily cross about the idea of second referendum”. Then take Corbyn’s own clear discomfort with a re-run vote yesterday (he stressed that some voters ‘see the EU as part of an establishment that plunged them into insecurity and hostility in the first place’), plus Diane Abbott’s ‘Lexit-style’ speech in the Commons today and you can see the big obstacles to a People’s Vote. Despite their new ad campaign greeting MPs at Westminster Tube.
2. AMBER FLASHING RED
Today, the Commons Brexit debate continues with Sajid Javid opening and Jeremy Hunt closing. Tory leadership watchers will keep an eye open, though judging by last night’s thin attendance (at one point just 16 MPs were in the chamber), there may not be a huge audience in person. Javid and Hunt have been ridiculed by some fellow ministers for suggesting a no-deal Brexit would still allow Britain to ‘flourish and prosper’ (Hunt repeated the line today). This morning, Amber Rudd refused three times to deny she’d quit the Cabinet if no-deal went ahead. In fact on SkyNews last night she even hinted she would have voted with the no-deal Tory rebels on the Cooper-Morgan amendment (“it’s very difficult to tell”).
Rudd in fact has already outshone her colleagues with previews of her big speech aiming to ‘re-set’ Universal Credit. On Today, she said that the previous elements of the policy were not ‘compassionate’. One such was the two-child limit and her plan to U-turn on that reflects huge pressure from the Work and Pensions Select Committee and other campaigners. Only 15,000 will benefit, and the policy remains in place for future claimants, but it shows she is listening. Just as important was her decision to ‘nudge’ job centres to make sure that the primary childcare parent is now the ‘main recipient’ of Universal Credit. Again, this acknowledges the huge backlash that the new system ended separate payments for men and women and rolled them into one payment per household.
From compassion on welfare to a softer Brexit, Rudd’s unabashed centrism is part of her political DNA and it feels like her recall to Cabinet has given her a new lease of life. Far from being worried about the constraints of being in office, she seems liberated to tell it like it is (as she sees it). Asked last night if she was still interested in being Tory leader, she simply said she was focusing on her day job. But despite her tiny majority in Hastings, it feels like she thinks that she could offer a moderate Conservatism vision that could rescue the Tory brand post-Brexit, and post-May, even after 12 years in power.
3. CAR BLIMEY, GOVT
Motoring metaphors abounded today. Rudd said on Radio 4 that preparations for a no-deal Brexit were like using a car seatbelt. This was a variant of what she told Cabinet in December, when she said “Just because you’ve put a seatbelt on, it doesn’t mean you should crash the car”. To which Labour’s Ben Bradshaw tweeted: “What use is a seatbelt when the car is driving over a cliff?” As for Brexiteers, don’t forget they view no-deal as in fact ‘short term speed bumps’.
The car theme piled up in earnest yesterday as Japanese PM Shinzo Abe finally filled the grid to warn of no-deal disaster. The Jaguar LandRover job losses, plus Honda’s decision to shutdown for six days after Exit Day, were powerful ammo for backers of May’s deal and Remainers alike. But Leavers countered that JLR’s problems were much more about diesel and a China slowdown, and trumpeted the announcement by Rolls Royce that it would keep production in the UK whatever happened on Brexit. State aid offered to Slovakia to take some Jaguar jobs will also be seized on by Labour Lexiteers’ arguing for reform. Meanwhile, the Times reports lots of civil servants are now spending more time on no-deal. That ‘seatbelt’ is costly and time-consuming, it seems.
What’s been surprising is May’s own refusal to play the security card on no-deal, given she knows how important it is. Yesterday, ex-MI6 chief Richard Dearlove and defence staff chief Lord Guthrie wrote an extraordinary letter saying May’s plan was in fact the security risk. David Davis said “few people can match the expertise and patriotism” of Dearlove and Guthrie. But some spooks think Dearlove in particular has undermined SIS with his political pronouncements since leaving the job. And former National Security Adviser Peter Ricketts tweeted: “The claims in this letter are nonsense. Our intelligence links with the US have nothing to do with the EU and w’d be unaffected by the deal. Law enforcement cooperation is in our national interest. If we wanted to join an EU military mission that would be our sovereign choice.”
What’s not been noticed is that there is a wider expectation management problem for Remainers in all the recent scary forecasts about no-deal. If, by some miracle a version of May’s Brexit plan goes ahead, we won’t see the armageddon scenario. That will be used as proof that life is not too bad after all outside the EU. But many Remainers believe that sacrificing frictionless trade on the altar of immigration curbs will be just as dire as planes not flying and medicine not arriving. There won’t be a catastrophic haemorrhage to the economy, but there will be a slow bleed that will be just as bad in the long term, they say.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this BBC Question Time member win applause for saying it’s time to stop ‘feeling sorry for Theresa May’. She sounded more poised and polished than most frontbenchers these days. She’s getting so much Twitter love, maybe she’ll run for office?
4. SCHOOLS N HOSPITALS
In his pomp, Tony Blair scared the hell out of many moderate Tories because he owned the ‘schoolsnhospitals’ agenda. Today there are two stories to make many worried. The ever-impressive Health Service Journal discovers in the small print of the NHS plan that the government will give the NHS £2bn less in real terms over the next five years than it previously said. Meanwhile, a think tank reveals almost a third of secondary schools are in deficit. Some schools are raiding cash to subsidise sixth forms, which have been the real cinderella of the past few years funding rounds.
5. WARDS OF COURT
The issue of balancing trans rights with women’s rights is starkly illustrated by the Telegraph’s exclusive today that NHS hospitals routinely allow male patients to share female wards if they self-identify as women. One trust “advises staff to consult with the transgender patient if a female victim of sexual assault objects to sharing facilities with someone who may be biologically and legally male”. Stonewall counters that 37% of trans people avoid treatment for fear of discrimination. It seems only a matter of time before both sides in this debate end up going to court to test their competing rights under the law.
This week’s CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about this extraordinary past few days in politics (and look forward to next week) with the super savvy former No.10 director of legislative affairs Nikki da Costa and UK in a Changing Europe chief Anand Menon. Click HERE to listen on audioboom, or below for iTunes.
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