1. FOSTER CARE
No.10 always knew that the closer Theresa May moved to a Brexit deal, the rougher would be the pushback from Tory and DUP MPs who’ve long suspected they’ll be betrayed. With a Cabinet meeting now expected on either Monday or Tuesday, it’s going to take a Herculean effort of diplomacy to keep everyone on board. And with the DUP and Brexiteers closer together than ever before, the PM has to handle with care every single step in the process.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has told the Times that a new letter from May, which was meant to reassure her party about the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ guarantee, in fact “raises alarm bells” for those worried about both the integrity of the UK and a “proper Brexit”. Foster (probably correctly) inferred from May’s letter that the EU’s own solution to the issue would still be in the Withdrawal Agreement, though buried under Brussels verbiage. No10 suggests the letter has been misinterpreted, but the DUP rhetoric is so strong now that it’s hard to see how it can back down.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox added to the PM’s woes yesterday with a warning of his own about a cunning plan to create third party arbitration of any mechanism that pulls the UK out of a new customs arrangement with the EU. “Ultimately that decision has to lie with the sovereign British government..that decision can’t be subcontracted to somebody else, that needs to be an issue for a sovereign British government to be able to determine,” he told broadcasters in Whitehall. But will Fox really quit if he doesn’t get his way? One minister pointed out to me recently that he and Gove hated being out of the Cabinet so much that they’re unlikely to ever voluntarily leave it again.
Even if the Northern Ireland issue can somehow be resolved, the European Research Group is digging in on the wider UK-EU ‘alignment’ in a future trade deal. Steve Baker tells the Guardian: “In the end, it’s not really about the backstop..Many of us have long believed that the row over the backstop is at least partly confected in order to have an orchestrated breakthrough. If you look at the evolution of the discussion on the Irish backstop, it became a very good excuse to say we have to have a ‘high alignment Brexit’.” Again, however, just how many ERG members will stand as firm as Baker and Davis and Johnson?
We shouldn’t forget too that there’s no point May even proposing her complex NI or trade plans to the Cabinet unless she’s confident Brussels won’t reject them. If she fails to square the EU, she could end up without any November summit and a December disaster that would make Salzburg look like a picnic. As I wrote yesterday, the EU27 are not remotely happy about anything that undermines the level playing field of their customs union, or gives the UK a competitive advantage. And as we discussed last week in our podcast, some EU states are pushing hard for continued full access to UK fishing waters as a price for a customs deal. That puts real pressure on Scottish Tory MPs to add to the PM’s headaches.
Like all PMs, May has to rely on both persuasion and discipline to get her way. Some around her point out that she only got her first Brexit breakthrough last December by defying the DUP and making clear who was the real boss. But in this last final push, the Brexit talks look increasingly like a game of whack-a-mole, where for every problem hammered down by No.10, another one pops up instantly. One false move in coming days and weeks, and she could still be the one who gets whacked.
2. BEN DOVER BACKWARDS
Dominic Raab is learning fast that throwaway remarks made when you’re Brexit Secretary can be picked up pretty quickly indeed. Speaking at a tech conference on Wednesday, he confessed “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent” of just how reliant the UK’s trade was “particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing” (watch the clip HERE). He was warning of the dangers of no deal, but that didn’t prevent the ridicule from Remainers. The Institute for Government pointed to a rather impressive graphicshowing just how reliant lorry trade traffic is over and under the English Channel. Yesterday morning, David Davis insisted no deal would involve mere ‘hiccups’, pointing out it was in Calais’ self-interest to keep on trucking on.
Raab is unfazed by the sudden flurry of publicity. But he may not be so sanguine about the activities of de facto DPM David Lidington in recent days. Remember Lidington flew out to Dublin to smooth things last week, days after Raab had reportedly upset foreign minister Simon Coveney by talking about the UK unilaterally pulling out of any Brexit backstop. Well, today’s Sun claims Raab is still ‘furious’ about his own diplomacy “being undermined at every turn”. One ally has a corking quote: “The government is being run by Philip Hammond, Greg Clark and David Lidington. And they all want to stay in the customs union.” It’s true that each of those three has more clout than many assume.
Lidington, in particular, is still a bogeyman among many older Eurosceptics who recall his long tenure as Europe minister under Cameron. Yet it’s precisely his extensive knowledge of EU politics and individual member state concerns that has proved invaluable to the PM in recent months, sources say. He spent years in Opposition shadowing Northern Ireland too. If anyone can help build alliances to agree that ‘fabulously complicated’ solution to the backstop, it’s him. Insiders say that while Damian Green was closer to the PM, his replacement has proved much more quietly effective in the cross-Whitehall role. And when the history of Brexit is written, if May does indeed get a deal, Lidington’s appointment could turn out to have been one of the pivotal moments.
3. MAY THE FOUR BE WITH YOU
The idea of Labour backing a four-day week floated around the party conference this year, though with little senior backing. After the conference season was over, John McDonnell put rocket boosters under the idea when he appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics to declare that increasing automation of jobs “might mean reducing hours of work…the Germans and French produce in four days what we produce in five and yet we work the longest hours”. Weeks earlier, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady had said: “I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week.”
Overnight, the issue has resurfaced again as it emerged that McDonnell is in talks with crossbench peer and highly respected economist Lord Skidelsky about a possible inquiry into cutting the length of the working week. The party insists the idea is not party policy but it’s obvious that when the Shadow Chancellor wants to explore something that this is more than just kite flying. More details should emerge in the next fortnight.
Skidelsky wrote an epic biography of John Maynard Keynes, so he knows whereof he speaks on the whole issue of work and leisure time. In the 1930s, Keynes famously predicted that the working week could be cut to just 15 hours, as technological and other progress meant living standards would rise and human beings could more easily satisfy their material needs. Of course, that never happened. But if McDonnell can use the new inquiry to look at the whole area, and the UK’s bigger productivity problems, it won’t be time misspent.
Corbyn supporter Aaron Bastani yesterday faced calls from Labour MPs for him to be kicked out of the party after a video emerged showing him criticising the Royal British Legion, claiming the poppy appeal was ‘racist…white supremacist’ and for saying ‘f*ck the Invictus Games’. Tom Watson said every MP should distance themselves from his remarks, while John Mann wanted him thrown out. Some MPs think this is exactly the kind of issue that can have cut-through with working class voters in key seats. Under previous Labour leaders, it’s possible Bastani would have been suspended under the catch-all edict of not bringing the party into disrepute, but it’s unlikely any action will be taken. He tweeted last night “I have nothing but the greatest respect for Britain’s war dead”, and stuck by his main claim that the Legion was doing nothing about homeless veterans (though it’s unclear where he gets his various figures of ‘66,000’ or ‘13,000’).
5. ROGER AND OUT?
New ‘housing beauty’ czar Roger Scruton has spent years giving lectures and writing articles so there’s no shortage of material for his critics to trawl through to discover what the Government calls “strong views”. BuzzFeed have unearthed footage of a 2005 lecture in which he said there was “no such crime” as date rape and claimed sexual harassment “just means sexual advances made by the unattractive”. “When a woman cries ‘date rape’ what she means is ‘the whole thing went too quickly’, you know, ‘I was not prepared’, and so consent is withdrawn as it were in retrospect,” he said. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is still standing by him, but things could get interesting next Wednesdaywhen Scruton is due to give a lecture at Policy Exchange. Housing Secretary James Brokenshire is down to introduce him. Scruton’s not the kind of guy to apologise, so grab your popcorn.
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