1. CHAT SLIP GET BANGED
‘Chatham House rules’ dictate that some private events, like Boris Johnson’s chat to the Conservative Way Forward group on Wednesday, are supposed to be kept confidential. But when Brexit is at stake and the Foreign Secretary talks about ‘meltdown’ and copying Trump’s tactics, you can’t blame someone for leaking his words. BuzzFeed’s superb scoop, which is also in the Times, laid bare just how Boris riffs and struts in front of an audience he wants to reassure for a future leadership bid. Many Brexiteers are still suspicious that Boris is a late convert to their cause, but think beggars can’t be choosers when the PM looks like she’s backsliding on their dream (and on the wishes of 17 million Leave voters). Question Time last night summed up our national divide with one voter saying “We voted to leave, let’s pull up anchor and sail away”. To which Shami Chakrabarti replied: “It’s not an Enya song!”
There’s a wealth of Boris quotes to choose from, but one of the most striking was him saying it was a “very, very good thought” that May should adopt Trump’s approach with Brussels. “I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness … Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.” And this on Brexit itself: “You’ve got to face the fact there may now be a meltdown. OK? I don’t want anybody to panic during the meltdown. No panic. Pro bono publico, no bloody panic. It’s going to be all right in the end.”
Calling the Treasury ‘the heart of Remain’ isn’t enough to get you sacked. And for all the talk of meltdown, his rider that it’ll be alright on the night, probably helped him avoid a more serious dressing down. But leaking details of her G7 plans, on highly sensitive issues like North Korea, Russia and China, really are sackable offences. So too was his line on Northern Ireland’s border, saying “it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog” – a direct criticism of her approach.
Friends of Mr Johnson said last night: “This was a private dinner under Chatham House rules, so it is sad and very disappointing that it has been covertly recorded and distributed to the media.” Cynics would counter that Boris may well have wanted his remarks out there as both a useful warning to May and to burnish his credentials among Tory members. His extemporised remarks hardly sounded like a slip of the tongue. Labour’s Charlie Falconer saw the upside however on Twitter: “Brave capable remainer becomes editor of Daily Mail, PM accepts the Customs Union indefinitely (subject to fudge to keep DD on board), and Boris reveals soft Brexit is probably coming. UK should accept a customs union and EEA-type deal as starting point for negotiations.”
Michael Howard was on the Today programme trying to play down the various Cabinet splits saying “there were always going to be spills and thrills”, while warning Remainer Tories not to push their luck: “there are people trying to nudge her through the back door into a customs union”. Yet Howard, famously no fan of Boris (he fired him for lying about his extra-marital affair don’t forget), added his scepticism that the Trump model would work in Brexit talks. “That is a thought I would prefer not to entertain…” Exactly one year on from May’s snap election disaster (Nigel Morris at the ‘i’ has an account of reactions to the exit poll), it’s still unclear whether Boris leading the Tories into the next election is a thought his party would prefer not to entertain.
At lunchtime today, the EU’s Michel Barnier is due to give a press conference. And after the high drama and low farce of David Davis’s movements yesterday, it will be fascinating to check both the tone and substance of how Barnier reacts to the UK’s latest ‘backstop’ proposals on Brexit. If his tweet yesterday is a guide, he may wrap genuine concerns in an emollient message of ‘at least we have more clarity on the British position’. Read more in our Owen’s Brexit Briefing HERE.
What was obvious yesterday was just how volatile things are in the Cabinet right now. After months of feeling marginalised, Davis finally used his leverage (a walkout would trigger unfathomable problems for May) to the get PM to increase her leverage with Barnier (making clear we won’t tolerate delays beyond 2021). Following a tense showdown, the agreed wording read: “The UK expects the future [UK-EU] arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.” DD backers felt that was a heroic flag signalling ‘England Expects that every Brexiteer will do his duty’.
Still, some of May’s allies dripped with disdain, believing he’d only secured a meaningless phrase. The Sun’s Tom Newton-Dunn quoted one source saying “She’s done him like a kipper again”. But one DD source told me that he had suggested the exact ‘expects’ wording earlier in the week, only to have it flatly rejected by No.10. The fact that May caved yesterday proved he could get his way. In her message to Tory MPs last night, May said the backstop plan was “unpalatable but, at worst, temporary”. Proving again that semantics often dominate Brexit, unpalatable here doesn’t literally mean inedible, it means unpleasant to taste. Some in May’s team think that no matter how weak Boris and DD make her look, she’ll be thanked by her party one day for holding it together.
Sam Coates at the Times has found some devil in the detail and has multiple Whitehall sources claiming the backstop would mean no UK-US trade deal (in goods), not least in agri-products. The Guardian has a lovely Whitehall source quote pointing out that the backstop deadline may be elastic: “It’s taken us seven years to put 150,000 people on universal credit.” On the plane over to the G7 summit in Canada, May couldn’t give reporters any guarantees that the backstop won’t last beyond 2021. More worrying for her is the report by the Telegraph’s excellent Ben Riley-Smith that Trump is bored of her “school mistress tone” and her preference to get on to policy detail rather than wider chat. May’s allies may take that as a back-handed (though sexist) compliment about her professionalism. But given his slapdash approach, maybe it’s more proof she needs a new way to get through to him.
3. MAKING AMENDS
Ahead of next week’s showdown over the EU Withdrawal Bill, No.10 has tried to stave off even more serious Government defeats. Last night it tabled its own amendments to the Lords amendments, following Downing Street meetings with key Tory rebels like Anna Soubry, Ken Clark, Dominic Grieve and Antoinette Sandbach. The key amendment gives ministers 28 days to make a statement to Parliament if MPs reject Theresa May’s final Brexit deal. That’s seen by Labour as lame compared to demands for “a truly meaningful vote” on the deal. More tweaks will inevitably come next week and there’s talk of wording on a customs union that could tempt some Tory rebels. As of now, however, the numbers are extremely close.
Jeremy Corbyn is trying to avoid his own internal splits too of course. Since his policy shift on Tuesday, Keir Starmer has held extensive private meetings with Labour MPs from all parts of the country and all wings. One meeting of MPs from Leave areas underlined the divide on Wednesday, with Stephen Kinnock and other backers of the EEA amendment coming under fire from Caroline Flint, Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell for not grasping voters’ worries over immigration and warning Labour’s fire should be on the Tories not itself. One of the most concerned MPs was Wayne David, a former MEP in a heavily Leave area. He’s blogged for HuffPost that “hostility to free movement was an important issue in the referendum” and argues the Norway model would be “very difficult for Britain to accept”.
Will Labour unite around a second referendum, though? FCO Minister Sir Alan Duncan dismissed a fresh plebiscite yesterday (though his clumsy wording led some to report he was floating the idea). But in a piece for Total Politics, the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire has a senior Shadow Cabinet minister (I wonder if he is a Baggies fan?) saying: “There is an argument that people get the final say…The imperative for us is to build unity and let the Conservatives tear themselves apart. How we do that is fluid and nothing, sensibly, is ruled out by Jeremy and the inner sanctum.” Expect May to seize on that again next week, as she did at PMQs this week.
4. BENJAMIN, BRITAIN
I mentioned yesterday reports that the PM had failed to be tough enough with Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit to the UK. Now the Guardian and Jewish Chronicle report that former Tory leader Michael Howard was much more blunt about the killings of Palestinians in Gaza. At a meeting with the Israeli PM, Howard asked: “Why couldn’t you use rubber bullets? Why could you – if, in extremis, you had to use live ammunition – not shoot them in the legs? Why did you have to kill them?” Howard, one of the most senior Jewish figures in British politics, at least prompted Netanyahu to say he was looking for new technological solutions to prevent protesters scaling the fence separating Gaza from Israel. He said he would use non-lethal means if they could be found, and insisted he was “exploring other options for the future”.
The sensitivities around the trip were underscored by Guardian editor Kath Viner spiking a Steve Bell cartoon of Netanyahu and May, amid worries that it may have contained anti-semitic tropes. HuffPost has emails from a furious Bell saying he had been ‘unfairly traduced and censored’ and his image of a burning Palestinian was not a reference to Holocaust ‘ovens’. You can see Bell’s cartoon for yourself HERE and make your own mind up.
5. TAKING A STAND
Shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan is skilful footballer and today she showed a bit of nifty political footwork by launching Labour’s new policy to back “safe standing” in stadiums. Twenty years after the introduction of a ban on terraces following the Hillsborough disaster, Allin-Khan argues that advances in stadium design mean that the law should be changed to give fans a chance to cheer on their team without sitting down. Unveiling the plan at QPR’s ground, she wants the Secretary of State to use Secondary Legislation to instruct the Sports Ground Safety Authority to allow the safe standing in areas where it is safe to do so.
A survey by the Football League last month indicated 94% of 33,000 fans asked wanted safe standing to be introduced. Proving this is a real grassroots campaign, 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for the return of safe standing (with rail seats that lock in an upright position) and a debate in Parliament is due on June 25. Sports minister Tracey Crouch, who had real concerns about the calls for change, now looks like she’s reconsidering too. We could see at least a full review of the policy unveiled later this month. The Football League want the change but the Premiership seem to have resisted. Let’s see if there’s a way forward.
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