1. AN AIR OF RESIGNATION
“The four most beautiful words in the English language: ‘I told you so’.” American author Gore Vidal’s famous one-liner sprang to mind this morning as it emerged that several Cabinet ministers were considering resigning over the latest Brexit row. Leading rebels like David Davis may well be muttering ‘I told you so’ towards both Theresa May (he warned her Brussels would demand further concessions on her Chequers plan) and to those Brexiteers who opted to stay in or join the Cabinet (he hinted to them their ‘let’s just get past March’ line was a surrender).
The cause of the latest angst was last night’s meeting of a core of Cabinet ministers, which saw a 100-minute discussion that included serious concerns that the PM was set to give up more ground to the EU. The particular worry centred on the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’, a guarantee to avoid a hard border with Ireland by keeping the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU. It appears that what upset several ministers was a plan to remove a specific end date, December 2021, for this guarantee. Instead, as Newsnight’s Nick Watt reported last night, there’s a new plan to insert a ‘review clause’ for the backstop, rather than an end-date, into the UK’s withdrawal agreement.
May herself seems to be sticking to the line that she wants a ‘time limit’ of some kind. But how she finesses this will now be crucial to avoid a total roadblock from the EU, which has made clear time and again any Northern Ireland guarantee has to be open-ended, otherwise it’s not a guarantee at all. With the DUP sounding resolute, several Brexiteer Cabinet ministers could use this as a ‘final straw’ excuse to quit. Andrea Leadsom sounds most likely to walk, but Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey are also said to be considering their position. The Mail reports Liam Fox says the new plan ‘would make life difficult for me’. I suspect May could just about weather the storm caused by Leadsom, Mordaunt, McVey and even Fox’s resignations. What would really cause outright panic would be if Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and senior Leaver Michael Gove were to quit too.
The only thing that seems certain is that we will have more uncertainty next week. The Cabinet is unlikely to agree the new proposal on Tuesday, so the EU summit may have to park some key issues until November. Meanwhile, we have a report on how men have dominated the debate on Brexit in Parliament, with almost 90% of Westminster contributions on the EU coming from male MPs. The new study by Women for a People’s Vote prompts Labour’s Alison McGovern to say: “Women are disproportionately impacted by Brexit, but our voices are being drowned out by mansplaining men in Westminster.”
2. FOR BETTER OR WORSE
There are times, not many, when a reporter sits in a Lobby briefing and gets a nuanced reply from the Prime Minister’s official spokesman that means something very significant indeed. That happened yesterday when No.10 was asked about Universal Credit and whether more cash would be pumped into the system in the coming Budget to cushion its impact. The reply was that the PM was “listening to concerns”, not least those of Iain Duncan Smith, who had said the £2bn cuts imposed by George Osborne should be reversed as they risked undermining his flagship policy. Older hands among us sniffed not a full U-turn but a possible partial retreat from the previous bland assurances that everything was fine.
Then, as if by magic, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey pops up on the BBC and actually confirms what May’s critics had pointed out: that new claimants, not current claimants which the PM had used as a smokescreen, were set to become “worse off”. McVey notably refused to deny a report (Sam Coates’ Times scoop last weekend) that she had told Cabinet colleagues that some claimants could lose £2,400 a year as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit. “I won’t say what I said in Cabinet,” she told Radio 4’s World at One.
Tory dissenters got the green light from McVey. Backbencher Johnny Mercer swiftly made clear Universal Credit was ‘politically undeliverable’, tweeting the Treasury should halt its planned income tax breaks and pump the cash into DWP instead (intriguingly he deleted a tweet saying ‘reinvest in UC or I can’t support it’). Fellow Tory MP Nigel Mills called for the national roll-out of the benefit to be paused. The Telegraph splashes its front page on claims that Philip Hammond now ’plans to scrap a manifesto pledge to raise the personal allowance for income tax’ and use the cash saved for welfare help. The Daily Express splashes its front page with Treasury minister Mel Stride writing that the government would keep taxes ‘as low as possible’. Let’s see where Hammond does find the cash for any new welfare cushion.
3. PARK LIFE
The jumpiness of the Cabinet and possibility of May being toppled means people are having to take seriously what a ‘no deal’ Brexit might look like. The nightmare scenario of traffic backing up from Dover has prompted the Department of Transport to announce that a major Kent motorway will be closed for works that would turn it into a giant lorry park if needed. “As part of wider resilience planning, Highways England has been asked by the Department for Transport to develop plans to utilise the M26 to hold heavy goods vehicles, should further capacity be required in the future,” the DoT said. It will start site surveys this month to install two gates in the central reservation “to support the safe management of freight in the future, if needed”.
Local MP Tom Tugendhat (who coincidentally is touted as a possible future Tory leader) was furious when he learned on Wednesday night that the closures had started. He told Transport Secretary Chris Grayling in the Commons yesterday “it’s come to a pretty pass” when an MP discovers such a dramatic move without any prior consultation. Tugendhat says had been assured by Grayling in April the works would not happen. It emerged recently that the government also plans to section off the entire southbound carriageway of a 13-mile stretch of the M20 in Kent to hold about 2,000 lorries in the event of severe cross-Channel congestion.
Meanwhile, we had a further dispatch from the front line of ‘no deal’ land when HMRC chief Jon Thompson revealed he’d received death threats for forecasting that Brexiteers’ plans would cost up to £20bn in red tape. The top tax man said he’d had to review his personal security after warning that the Leavers’ preferred ‘Max Fac’ Irish border option for checking customs would cost businesses a fortune. He told the Institute for Government he would not be silenced from “speaking truth unto power about Brexit”. Thompson also revealed he’d only spent 20% of the ‘no deal’ preparations cash given to him by the Treasury. He has hired only 2,000 of the extra 4,500 staff he demanded because he is expecting May to strike a deal with Brussels.
4. TRUMP THAT
I’ve been saying for some time that at least Donald Trump is more honest than previous US Presidents about the way they use the country’s global domination to ruthlessly protect its own self-interest. He’s recently used the US’s sheer economic clout to force both Canada and Mexico to agree a new trade deal. Today, after imposing sanctions that led to a run on Turkey’s currency, it looks like Washington has forced Ankara to release an American evangelical pastor held for two years. Trump’s latest candid outburst is his unprecedented public criticism of the US Federal Reserve, saying plunging stock markets prove it was “too aggressive” (oh, the irony) and “out of control” in raising interest rates. Will the Fed respond and markets stabilise as a result? Or has he just made the situation a hell of a lot worse?
5. SINS OF EMISSION
The Government talks the talk about cutting carbon emissions and powering a new generation of electric vehicles to boost green jobs. But yesterday the Department of Transport tried to slip out a policy change as quietly as a Toyota Prius waiting at a traffic light: from next month it will scrap grants for new plug-in hybrids and slash discounts on others. It takes a particular genius to unite environmental groups and car manufacturers, the RAC and AA on any issue. But all of them have attacked the ‘astounding’ decision by Chris Grayling’s department. Tim Farron (he’s now the Lib Dem environment spokesman, bet you didn’t know that did you?) says: “This short-sighted decision from government is a dagger to the heart of their claims that they are serious about improving air quality.” So far, no response from Labour though.
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