1. BREX-SIT IN
Is Boris bluffing? That’s the question both the EU27 and the UK parliament will be forced to confront this autumn. Brussels will find out by October 31 whether his no-deal rhetoric really is a negotiating tactic. MPs and peers will also discover whether his threats to prorogue parliament are similarly real or theatrical.
Well, it looks like some MPs are taking no chances on the threat to shut down parliament. Adopting the motto that desperate times require desperate (counter)measures, they are plotting a Commons ‘sit-in’ if Johnson tries to prorogue without a vote of MPs. Normally, the ancient procedure occurs in the Lords and the Commons Speaker is expected to read a similar announcement a few minutes later.
But a group of MPs believe John Bercow will simply carry on as normal, sitting in his chair, while the Opposition and Tory rebels refuse to budge from their benches. As Bercow and the Serjeant at Arms, rather than any government minister, control the Commons doorkeepers, no one can stop this sit-in. And this a scenario that’s not coming from firebrand veterans of direct action like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. It’s being discussed by Chancellor Philip Hammond, HuffPost and the ‘i’ newspaper reveal today.
Hammond is now emerging as figurehead of the anti-no-deal movement. “Philip will be the leader of the rebel group once he gets sacked,” a former minister tells us. Hammond has already played a key role in helping draft amendments and although Dominic Grieve failed to get all his plans implemented this week, more are in the pipeline.
2. THE LORD COD ALMIGHTY
In fact, what happens down the Lords end of parliament will be another battlefront in the no-deal Brexit war. I can reveal that Labour’s Lords leader Angela Smith told the PLP last week her plan to table a motion (last used in 1963 to try and stop another Tory leadership change) to advise the Queen not to allow a prorogation. “I give notice now that if the new Tory prime minister resorts to procedural trickery to thwart parliament, we won’t make it easy. You can expect another motion in this vein from the leader of the Opposition in the Lords,” Smith said, to loud applause from MPs and peers.
Meanwhile, the old Greive-Hailsham axis (that led to the ‘meaningful vote’ nightmare that created many of Theresa May’s problems on Brexit) is being revived. Last night, Tory peer Lord Hailsham joined Labour, Lib Dem and crossbench peers to table an amendment to the Northern Ireland bill to effectively ensure parliament was sitting in coming weeks. ’We only have one shot at this,” one Lords insider says, aware that ping-pong is impossible. The government have scheduled the Commons showdown for next Thursday, when MPs usually slope off to their constituencies. Government whips smell something fishy coming from the Lords so will need fewer holes in their net this time.
The anti-no-deal crew of rebel Tories will undoubtedly be strengthened by some heavyweight Cabinet ministers who are expected to resign when Johnson becomes PM. In a SkyNews interview, Greg Clark is the latest to signal he would quit. “I am not going to trim and chop and change my views…no-deal Brexit would be enormously damaging,” he said. Which is a contrast to Amber Rudd, who yesterday told TalkRadio she ‘accepted’ that no-deal was “part of the armoury”. She may have been sticking loyally to the Jeremy Hunt line, but it sounded strangely limp to some of her colleagues.
Maybe, just maybe, Boris’s no-deal bluff won’t need to be called because he has a cunning plan to get Brexit through both Houses of Parliament? The impeccably-connected Mujtaba Rahman has revealed what that plan could look like: lengthening the transition period to ‘bury’ the Irish backstop. The DUP were sanguine when it was floated earlier this year, but Scottish Tories rejected it because of fears the hated common fisheries policy would continue. As Torcuil Crichton writes in the Daily Record, Boris risks throwing the Scottish ‘Codfathers’ under a bus. But if they (and son-of-fish-merchants Michael Gove) can be bought off somehow, Johnson may be off the hook of his Brexit problem.
3. SO LONG, FAREWELL
Andrew Neil may tonight pin down Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt on no-deal, prorogation and lots of other issues as they finally subject themselves to a live BBC grilling by the maestro of forensic interviewing. There’s huge anticipation for what could be Neil’s big swansong in this kind of encounter. Both Hunt supporters and Labour MPs alike hope he achieves something only Eddie Mair has previously managed - to get under Johnson’s skin and/or expose his contradictions, preferably in a clip that can go viral.
Neil certainly gave Theresa May a through grilling during the 2017 general election. But sometimes you can get more out of an interviewee, especially one like May, with a less confrontational approach. The Daily Mail’s Simon Walters (a master at varying his speed and angle of bowling) bagged an hour-long interview with the PM and he’s managed to prise out of her some telling lines.
She blames Tory Brexiteers for not delivering Brexit, pointing out that even offering to resign didn’t persuade them to get her deal over the line. “I had assumed mistakenly that the tough bit of the negotiation was with the EU, that Parliament would accept the vote of the British people and just want to get it done, that people who’d spent their lives campaigning for Brexit would vote to get us out on March 29 and May 27. But they didn’t.” Ouch.
May also hits out at the sexist reaction to her emotional resignation speech. ‘If a male Prime Minister’s voice had broken up, it would have been said “what great patriotism, they really love their country”. But if a female Prime Minister does it, it is ‘why is she crying?‘” But there’s also a telling admission that her Presidential-style campaign in 2017 was a disaster.” Looking back, it wasn’t a ‘me-style’ kind of campaign..I should have done the TV debates. I didn’t because I had seen them suck the life blood out of David Cameron’s campaign.”
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4. RED LETTER DAY
Labour’s internal war over anti-Semitism reignited spectacularly last night with letters and counter-letters between deputy leader Tom Watson and general secretary Jennie Formby. What struck me most about Formby’s riposte was her line about her current treatment for breast cancer. “Traducing my reputation and publicly attacking me when you know I am undergoing chemotherapy and am unable to respond in the media, is another example of the inappropriate way in which you choose to discuss this issue,” she said.
As well as rejecting any suggestion she had deleted key evidence, Formby’s main point was that Watson was ‘complicit in creating a perception that anti-Semitism is more prevalent in the Labour Party than wider society’. For many Labour MPs that’s the nub of the problem: they felt their party should be less racist than ‘wider society’. They will feel Formby’s argument is far cry from previous claims that ‘one anti-Semite in Labour is one too many’. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports more than 30 whistleblowers are set to give evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission inquiry.
5. LEAK FREAKS
The Sir Kim Darroch resignation shockwaves continue to reverberate. Team Johnson are irritated by the suggestion that May could fast-track his replacement. Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, seen as a possible successor, sent a message to civil servants yesterday praising Darroch as a ‘friend and mentor’. He also warned trust in the civil service had to be constantly ‘earned’ by staying “focused on the citizens we serve”.
Will the person who leaked the Darroch cables be caught? The Times’ Francis Elliott had an intriguing tweet last night: “Told that Darroch leak inquiry much more advanced than most realise - looks like someone got a bit carried away.” Carried away and dropped their guard in covering their tracks? Did that person have any link to the Johnson campaign? Even if a leaker link emerged, it may make no difference to the Tory race. Although fewer ballot papers have been returned than expected, as Nikki da Costa pointed out, many will already have voted but just forgot to pop their ballot in the post.
Our latest Commons People podcast is out. This week’s guest is Lib Dem leadership favourite Jo Swinson. Given her party is one of four vying for top spot in the polls right now, some Lib Dems think they are on the brink of an historic breakthrough if Boris Johnson pushes a no-deal Brexit. Hear us chinwag with Jo about the Darroch affair, party disciplinary procedures and re-branding her party. Click HERE for Audiboom, HERE for Spotify and below for iTunes.
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