The Waugh Zone Friday January 25, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

The next big Parliamentary moment on Brexit looms large on Tuesday, and this morning’s Order Paper is stuffed full of amendments and tweaks that give clues to the battle ahead. One of the most vexed issues is of course a no-deal exit. Some Brexiteers are confident they can run down the clock to March 29 and it’s worth remembering that under EU Withdrawal Act 2018, no-deal is not some fantasy option, it is the default position in law. We leave with or without an agreement, unless MPs or the PM can come up with something else.

Chancellor Philip Hammond pushed the envelope of collective Cabinet responsibility yesterday with a speech in Davos in which he said that leaving with no-deal would be a ‘betrayal’ of those who in 2016 thought they were voting for a more prosperous future. Actually polls show that Leave voters kinda like the idea of a ‘clean Brexit’, but Hammond and other ministers are clearly very worried indeed by that prospect. Amber Rudd told Newsnight last night she wanted a free vote on no-deal (and refused to rule out resigning over it). On the Today programme, Hammond himself refused to deny he too could resign if the UK left the EU without a deal. “I’m not going to speculate because a lot depends on the circumstances of what happens,” he said.

Hammond did hint that ministers would be allowed to oppose no-deal in Parliament. The Chancellor said the Chief Whip and business managers would give MPs a chance to express their view, whatever that means. “Some of my colleagues, including some who are in government, will want to be able to express their view...Parliament will have an opportunity to express its clear view.” Whether that means indicative votes or free votes or something else, we will find out over the weekend or early next week, I suspect. Brexiteers in the Cabinet say it would be ridiculous to have a free vote on such a fundamental government policy. Hammond stressed that “I still believe that there is a majority [of MPs] that believe no deal would be a very bad outcome”, but also claimed that next Tuesday would not be the ‘High Noon’ it was portrayed on the no-deal issue.

He’s right in one sense. MPs will vote on amendments to the government’s neutral motion on Tuesday, but there is no new ‘Brexit deal’ for them to vote on. Sources say that the second ‘meaningful vote’ on the government’s own revised plans will take place some time afterwards, possibly the following week. That doesn’t mean that Tuesday doesn’t matter, more that it’s a staging post rather than the crunch point.

Still, Yvette Cooper’s amendment to delay Exit Day is the one that ministers worry most about, because of the way it tears up Parliamentary convention. We reported last night that Tory Brexiteer peers are plotting to ‘filibuster’ Cooper’s bill. Labour’s leader in the Lords Baroness Smith tells us: “Given the primacy of the Commons, it would be extraordinary if unelected peers sought to derail this Bill.” The Mail has a similar story, revealing Liam Fox has held private talks with Lords to ‘talk out’ the legislation. Fellow Remainers are muttering about the difficulties with Cooper’s plan too. I note that this morning, a simpler (though non-binding) amendment from Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey - it just ‘rejects’ no-deal - has more signatures than Cooper-Boles (117 to their 103). The anti-no-dealers, inside government and outside it, have a choice of routes to go down.

The once-unthinkable idea of a no-deal Brexit is clearly having to become a reality for the EU27 too. This morning the BBC reports some EU states want to allow British hauliers and airlines to continue to move freely within the bloc, even if we crash out without any agreement. Leo Varadkar also sounds like he’s been discussing no-deal contingency plans, though the idea of shifting the Irish/UK border to Dutch, French and Belgian ports sounds deeply flawed.

However, it is of course movement on the Northern Irish border that is seen as the key to progress for May’s deal. Yesterday the backbench Brexiteer European Research Group made plain it was unhappy with Andrew Murrison’s original amendment imposing a 2021 deadline on the Irish ‘backstop’. Taking advantage of a procedural quirk that meant the motion and all amendments had to be re-tabled yesterday, Brexiteers have overnight submitted a ‘Murrison 2’ amendment, backed by grandee Sir Graham Brady.

The Sun and the Spectator both had the new wording, which “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change.” On the face of it this will be rejected out of hand by the EU because it suggests ditching the backstop altogether. Still, I reckon there’s a deal to be done here. The ‘Murrison 2’ wording isn’t far off the Political Declaration that states a joint “determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”. The problem is that we’re all running out of time for that ‘subsequent agreement’ to be hammered out.

And while the DUP sound like they are softening, there is still a Tory hardcore who can cause real trouble. The Sun quotes former Brexit minister David Jones: “As long as the backstop remains in the Withdrawal Agreement, there will be no Withdrawal Agreement”. In our Commons People podcast, Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly says Tory unity is the only way to get a deal. He told us that even if the party won an extra 40 seats, the Brexit arithmetic in the Commons would not change unless backbenchers came to a consensus.

As for the People’s Vote campaign, their MPs yesterday made a tactical retreat, admitting that without Jeremy Corbyn’s backing their amendments were doomed. That hasn’t stopped some tweaks to Corbyn’s amendment by referendum-supporters like Ian Murray, Mike Gapes and Angela Smith overnight. The Norway-plus/Common Market 2.0 supporters have yet to submit an amendment either. As Hammond says, the real action will be beyond next week.

Is Britain right now a tale of two Brendas? There’s Brenda from Bristol desperate to avoid general elections and for MPs to just get on with their jobs. And there’s Brenda from Buck House, aka HM The Queen, suggesting overnight that politicians should be ‘coming together to seek out the common ground’. In her Women’s Institute speech, she said: “Speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture. To me, these approaches are timeless, and I commend them to everyone.”

Many will think it’s pretty farcical that a grown-up democracy can seize on every nuance and whisper of its Monarch’s bland utterances on public affairs and read into them whatever they like. On one reading, Her Maj was simply uttering Clinton-card bromides. But whether it’s due to nods and winks from her courtiers or simply a lull in the news cycle, plenty of hacks have seized on it as a message to Parliament to get its act together on Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond told Today: “I think there’s huge wisdom in those words.”

Of course, during the Scottish independence referendum once told a well-wisher outside church: “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” That was pounced on as a boost for the No campaign. And it was later claimed that the remark had been uttered after Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, held talks to work out how she might express her concerns about independence in a coded way. As for Brexit, claims that Her Maj is a Eurosceptic have been hotly disputed by Nick Clegg. Maybe years from now, we’ll find out the truth.

Watch Fiona Bruce read from the autocue last night to ‘clarify’ her claim on Question Time last week that Labour was ‘behind’ in the polls that day. It wasn’t the apology Diane Abbott supporters wanted, but it offered ‘context’ that earlier polls showed Labour ahead.

Union leaders met Theresa May yesterday and unsurprisingly came away unimpressed at her refusal to rule out no-deal, or to consider delaying Brexit or a second referendum. But although Unite’s Len McCluskey told the PM to her face he worried this was all a PR stunt, behind the scenes the government is shifting on workers’ rights (and environmental rights) post-Brexit. We report that there are moves to include both in separate legislation, probably an environment bill, from the EU withdrawal agreement bill. Business Secretary Greg Clark has been very keen on this, so watch for more developments.

The latest in our ‘What It’s Like To Lose Your…’ series features on closures of job centres in Herne Bay and Whitstable in Kent. The neighbouring seaside towns lost their DWP offices in March, part of cost-cutting programme to shut more than 100 job centres nationwide. The closures locally mean that benefit claimants and job hunters have to travel to Canterbury, a 50-minute journey that costs £7.80 just to get there. For those affected, the holes in the welfare state safety net are getting bigger than ever.


Our latest Commons People podcast has Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly as our guest. Hear him and us chinwag about Airbus, delaying Brexit, snap election prep, proxy voting, top hats, wigs and more. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom. And below for iTunes.

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