1. THE WEIGHTING GAME
Theresa May has spoken to reporters on the flight to the G20 summit in Argentina, but her words add sweet FA to the sum of human knowledge on the topic of Brexit. Away from the will-they-wont-they farce of a TV debate, the only audience that matters is of course the 650 MPs in whose hands her premiership now rests. And it’s a real waiting game as all the focus is now on what will happen after the likely Government defeat of May’s compromise deal.
As we reported on Wednesday night, backers of a second referendum and a Norway-plus deal have decided to hold fire. They want the Commons to give a resounding rejection of the PM’s plan before going over the top and pushing their alternatives to the vote. That’s why Hilary Benn’s new cross-party amendment, published last night, is making waves. The words about stopping ‘no deal’ are not really the point. Crucially, the Benn amendment gives Parliament the extra time and procedural ability to come back in January and amend any new motion produced by May.
Some moan that politics should be all about policy not ‘process-ology’ (as Alastair Campbell used to call it), but right now Parliamentary procedure is what could well determine the future of this Prime Minister, and the kind of Brexit the country ends up with. With the full weight of Labour formally backing the Benn amendment, along with some Tory committee chairs, it’s perfectly possible it could win a majority. Add in all the customs union amendments to the Trade Bill and other bills needed before March 29, and it’s clear that ‘soft Brexit’ guerrilla warfare could continue unless May somehow gives way, or goes away.
After Andrea Leadsom’s loyalty plea, the roll-out of the Cabinet Brexiteers continues today with Liam Fox trying to woo Eurosceptic backbenchers. On the Today programme, he shared their pain (“I don’t for a second pretend to be enthusiastic about the backstop”) and even said “I don’t agree with” some of the assumptions behind the Government’s and Bank of England’s analysis on the economic impact of Brexit. The FT follows up our report from earlier this week that Michael Gove will be unleashed to further win round Tory MPs. I was told he would be the star guest on the Marr Show this Sunday. Maybe Marr could ask Gove why he was this week ‘purged’ from the European Research Group’s Whatsapp group.
2. CANCELLATION PRIZE
Will the Christmas train journey to May’s BrexitLand be cancelled due to Leavers on the line? Will there be a bus replacement service for Eurosceptics laid on by Chris Grayling? Well, the ‘i’ newspaper splashes today on the latest whips’ threat to wavering backbenchers: Christmas could be cancelled. Or at least, if May’s deal is voted down, Parliament could be recalled over the festive break or the holiday season cut short in a bid to pressure MPs to fall into line. “The message is vote for the deal or you might not see your families for much of the holidays,” one MP tells the paper’s well-connected political
Labour’s Whips were swift to point out the main problem with such threats is that any change to Commons hours or scheduling requires a Commons majority. “A stupid and hollow threat given she’d need to win a vote to do that,” they tweeted. The irony is that most Government whips have until now been taking a softly-softly approach to the ‘meaningful vote’. Chief Whip Julian Smith is making sure every single Tory MP has a one-on-one meeting and ministers (including Gove) are being deployed to help change minds.
Extending the Article 50 process is what could end up uniting Remainers and Leavers who hate May’s deal. And what will irritate the PM and bolster her critics is the news from Brussels that the EU27 could indeed agree a three-month extension to allow Parliament more time to end its gridlock. The Times reports that under plans being discussed in various European capitals, the EU would “agree to extend Britain’s membership until July to allow time for either a second referendum or to agree a Norway-style soft Brexit”. One source tells the paper that a British application to join EFTA would be a “game changer”, adding: “Norway plus a customs union would be viewed positively”.
3. WHAT’S APP, DOC?
Matt Hancock was famously ridiculed for the self-promoting Matt Hancock App. But Labour isn’t laughing at the Health Secretary’s promotion of another app, ‘GP at Hand’, which is the brainchild of private health firm Babylon. We report today that the Opposition has written to the PM to demand an urgent investigation into whether Hancock has breached the ministerial code in his repeated endorsement of the company’s product, which allows GP consultations via smartphone.
Within days of getting his current post, Hancock made plain he wanted to push new tech in the NHS. So far, so uncontroversial. But what worries his critics is that he has stepped over the line in personally endorsing the ‘GP at Hand’ app – which is on the Health Secretary’s own phone. Labour says Babylon has contracts with local NHS commissioning groups and thus is effectively getting taxpayer funds. As a result, it says Hancock has breached the code’s edict that ministers should not “normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to, pressure groups, or organisations dependent in whole or in part on Government funding”.
Health Service Journal and Pulse magazine have both reported criticism of the Babylon service, with Birmingham commissioners objecting to its expansion in their city. There’s a wider political problem too because ‘GP at Hand’ offers GP consultations for a fee of £9.99 a month, or a one-off £25. Labour’s Justin Madders says that Hancock’s promotion of “pay-for-access health products…subverts the objective and principles of a National Health Service, free at the point of use and open to all regardless of means”.
Hancock’s latest endorsement of the app came in the London Evening Standard this week, in a supplement run in ‘partnership’ with Babylon. It’s not gone unnoticed by Labour that Hancock was the special adviser to George Osborne, who happens to now be the Editor of the Standard. The Department of Health and Babylon have so far declined to comment. Let’s see if that lasts through the day.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Australian politician Sarah Hanson-Young let rip at male senatorsafter they ‘joked’ about her having sex. “You’re not fit to call yourselves men!”
4. DUP STEP
A potentially significant Brexit announcement was made by May’s deputy David Lidington in Scotland yesterday, but it has got surprisingly little attention south of the border. In a bid to ensure Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK had the same trade rules, he announced that Britain would voluntarily align itself the EU single market in industrial goods during any backstop regime. “You can describe it as a concession if you like,” he told Scottish media. The concession won’t affect farming products, but could it persuade the DUP to back down? Its famously doughty Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told The Herald: “If David Lidington thinks we are that soft in the head, he doesn’t know us.” Still, it’s one to keep an eye on and I know Tory whips are hopeful it could help shift the numbers over time, if developed further.
5. JESS-IN-TIME MANUFACTURING
Labour MP Jess Phillips looks like she’s been blocked by her own party leadership from joining the Commons anti-sleaze watchdog, PoliticsHome reports. The backbencher was all set to take up a seat on the Standards and Privileges Committee left vacant by the departure of Sir Kevin Barron. Phillips’ name was even printed on the Order Paper, but Labour decided at the last minute a wider field was needed. Phillips has hit out at the shadowy way such appointments are made by party leaders, warning the last thing an standards watchdog needs is ‘Yes men’. Manufacturing consent, wasn’t that the Chomsky book...?
Our latest Commons People podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Hear us chinwag about the Brexit TV debates and Labour and Tory tactics on a Peoples Vote. We also chat to Alan Wager, the boffin from UK in a Changing Europe think tank about his research on marginals flipping from Leave to Remain. There’s even a daft quiz on FISH. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom or below for iTunes.
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