1. THE QUIT PARADE
Theresa May bought herself yet more time yesterday as the ‘cross-party engagement’ on Brexit finally began. But it’s the fear that she’s again running down the clock, while stubbornly sticking to her plan, that has prompted some Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers to warn that they really won’t allow a no-deal exit. The Standard yesterday splashed on an exclusive that 20 ministers were ready to quit if they were ordered to oppose an expected amendment to give Parliament control over the Brexit process. Upto ten Cabinet ministers will not oppose the amendment either. The Telegraph reports similar claims on its front page today.
As far as this ‘Parliament-takes-back-
Cooper was in the Cabinet Office yesterday with Hilary Benn to meet David Lidington, Michael Gove, PM’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell and officials. Yet what struck me most was the cheery disposition of both the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers after their own talks with government. It may well be that all the invites to other party leaders (other than the DUP) and senior MPs are indeed what Corbyn suspects: a PR stunt to hide a new effort to get Tories and the Northern Ireland party on board.
There are two basic scenarios that could get the PM a possible Parliamentary majority. First, she could support a legally binding amendment to the Political Declaration that somehow time-limits the dreaded ‘backstop’. It could get DUP support and reduce her Tory rebellion to a hardcore of 20, who could in turn be outvoted by Labour MPs in Leave areas terrified of a delay to Brexit or no-Brexit. The real problem would be Brussels, but some ministers think they’ll blink.
The second scenario is to opt for some new ‘customs and trade arrangement’ that would again get the DUP on board by making the backstop irrelevant (as I wrote yesterday, some think the DUP is privately open to a Norway-style option). The Times reports the party could indeed accept more alignment as long as it kept the UK together. The Tory rebellion would be larger, but the number of Labour MPs ready to back it could be larger too. The main problem here is not Brussels, but whether the DUP is ready to break up its strong ERG alliance.
When Parliament finally votes on May’s new plan and the series of crucial amendments on Tuesday January 29 (the date was announced by Andrea Leadsom yesterday), the onus will be on MPs to finally decide what they want, rather than what they don’t want. No one wants to test their proposal out first and everyone wants their option to be seen as the last-man-standing when all other options have been exhausted. We may be moving from Brexit chicken to Brexit musical chairs.
2. REF OFF, MATE
Resignation is also being threatened by junior shadow ministers if Jeremy Corbyn somehow moves through Labour’s Brexit policy sequence to campaign for a second referendum, the Guardian reports. The strange thing about this story is that Corbyn currently seems very reluctant to back a ‘public vote’ anyway, and his most loyal ministers may be the last people to want to abandon him. But the very fact that the threat is being made at all tells us something about the determination of Team Corbyn to hold off that referendum decision for as long as possible. As I reported yesterday, there was a discussion of the issue at Shadow Cabinet this week, and several members expressed concerns about a new vote, with chair Ian Lavery among the most sceptical. Diane Abbott made plain her own view on Question Time that Leave would win again.
The real Parliamentary power of the anti-people’s voters comes from MPs in Leave seats, many of whom cannot be described as Corbynites. No one can call them hypocrites as they have never subscribed to the Left’s view that MPs are effectively delegates on behalf of the party membership. The problem on a People’s Vote really comes for Corbyn and others who claim that a member-led party should mean MPs reflect in policy what members really want. And the overwhelming majority of members (and some unions like the GMB) really, really want a second referendum. They also happen to like Jeremy Corbyn.
I said on our podcast before Christmas that there were estimates flying round that it could take a year to hold a referendum. Yesterday, MPs were given a Whitehall document that claimed just that. Now it’s hard to call a one-page list of bullet points a ‘dodgy dossier’ but the People’s Vote camp were pretty withering about its contents. Dominic Grieve said: “It is neither helpful nor right to have misleading information of this kind put out.” The government is right to point to statutory requirements on consultation but it’s wrong to think MPs couldn’t rush through a referendum bill very quickly beforehand.
Given some Labour unease, Parliamentary approval for a People’s Vote can only really happen if it’s the last option standing - and if it gets some serious Tory support. In our podcast this week (see below) Tory Liaison Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston tells us that ‘very, very many’ fellow Tories (including ministers) who are ready to back a referendum if the PM allows a free vote. “We could get there, I think, with a free vote on the Conservative side but it might just take another step in the process to make it absolutely clear that all the other options are out of the way.”
3. END OF THE PEER SHOW
Ever since John Bercow tore up the Commons rulebook the other week, Tory MPs have been muttering darkly about cutting his pension or blocking his peerage. Given his Labour support, much of it was seen as backbench bar room chat. But the PM has the real say, not the Commons, over peerages and given her private irritation with Bercow it seems his Lords seat could be under threat. Today the Times’ Matt Chorley reports a Cabinet source hinting the PM could break the convention that retiring Speakers always get peerages. “It’s a good job that peerage nominations are in our gift — I’m sure we’ll be thinking carefully about which individuals we would choose to elevate to the House of Lords. I can’t imagine we would look favourably on those who’ve cheated centuries of procedure.”
As for that procedure, last night the Commons Procedure Committee made its displeasure felt when chairman. Charles Walker wrote to Bercow (hat-tip the BBC’s brilliant constitution anorak Mark Darcy) to say he got it wrong when he allowed MPs to amend the government’s business motion on the Brexit debate. Walker, who is a long-standing friend of Bercow didn’t let his closeness to the Speaker to get in the way of his clear irritation. The letter (read it here) says it would be ‘reassuring’ to the House to know that in future all its rules will be ‘applied uniformly from the Chair’. That is Parliament-ese for a sick burn.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch think tank chief Anand Menon, in his question time debut, set out why those who back no-deal should be honest about the disruption it would cause.
4. POOL’S ERRAND
Speaking of convention, Boris Johnson loves up-ending it too. Today however he tries to woo his base among Tory members and the wider Leave public by reviving his complaints about EU migration. In a speech in Kent, he will say big corporations “held wages down” thanks to “unlimited pools” of foreign workers. It’s worth saying that there is lots of heresay but very little academic evidence that immigration cuts wages. In fact I recall at one point the only two people in the Cameron government who really believed that were Theresa May and James Brokenshire.
And in a live HuffPost/Telegraph debate during the 2016 referendum, Johnson cited a Bank of England report to back up his argument. (claiming it had said for every 10% rise in migrants there was ‘a two percent reduction’ in wages). There followed a delicious moment when Alex Salmond asked Boris if he’d read the report. After a short silence, Johnson replied: “I have not read that study.” Salmond then said: “I’ve taken the trouble of reading the study. It says a 10% rise in immigration would result in a one third of one pence diminution in average wages. One third of one pence.” Other studies suggest immigration has cut wages for the low skilled at worst by one penny an hour. There is also no academic evidence that migration hit the job prospects of the unskilled.
5. MISSED THE PHARMACIST
Drugs are getting harder to find. I know that may sound odd to any Londoner who whiffs weed at every bus stop, but today there’s a claim that Brexit could be hitting the supply of painkillers, anti-depressants and blood pressure medication. Pharmacists say they are struggling to obtain many common medicines and paying “vastly increased” prices for them, the BBC reports. There’s a key quote from the National Pharmacy Association that has been pounced on by Remainers: ”Uncertainty over Brexit appears to be a significant factor.” But Leavers will see this as classic Project Fear because generic drug shortages spiked in 2017 too and there were lots of other reasons for it.
Speaking of no-deal armageddon, the FT has a leaked Whitehall memoshowing that Britain will be unable to finalise the majority of trade deals needed to replace the European Union’s 40 agreements with other countries by Exit Day. The paper reminds us Liam Fox once said he could replicate our existing 40 trade deals (via EU) with countries like South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey etc by “one second after midnight” on March 29.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. For the first time, we recorded it the fabled Lobby Room. Also for the first time, it’s hosted by our new dep pol ed Arj Singh. Liaison Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston (aka ‘the alternative Prime Minister’ under Nick Boles’ original bill) joins us to chat about Brexit options and take part in our weekly quiz. Click HERE to listen on audioboom and below for iTunes.
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