1. TIME, GENTLEMEN PLEASE
It looks like we’re in the last-chance saloon for Theresa May’s Brexit plans. The main question this morning is whether her ‘time, gentlemen, please’ approach (calling for an extended transition period to allow a final UK-EU deal) can somehow get past her Tory backbenchers. Many Brexiteers inside and outside the Cabinet are punch drunk from the cumulative effect of concession after concession, with the prospect of years more EU rules and budget payments. For her part, May is probably sick of what she sees as Brexit’s bar-room bores. But like any good pub landlady, she is just keen to get to closing time and knows she’s going to have to use every trick in the book to get there.
There’s an ominous level of dissent from both Tory Leavers (upset at the longer transition and Chequers itself) and Remainers (very upset at the plan to deny them a ‘meaningful’ Commons vote). When I texted one Brexiteer last night to ask the mood after May’s latest gambit, he replied with one word: ‘contemptuous’. This weekend will be key to any serious plotting on the leadership front, with different factions working out just whether the failure to prepare the party for the extension idea is a blunder too far. The Tory backbench reaction to May’s Commons statement on the EU summit on Monday will be crucial. As will Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. As will the backbench 1922 Committee.
Rumours of May’s political death have been exaggerated before of course, and those around her seem to have an unnerving belief she’ll get through it all. One clue to her calm is that the Cabinet appeared to have been alerted, if not totally squared off, to the idea of extending the transition period. The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn reports there was “reluctant and caveat-ed backing” for the plan at a secret meeting of Cabinet Brexiteers over pizza on Monday night (and a clutch of ministers were told about it a week ago). But there was a big ‘but’. Assent was given only on the condition EU drop its own ‘backstop’ plan for Northern Ireland. “It doesn’t have a hope in hell in getting through unless it replaces the Northern Ireland only bit,” one minister tells him. Iain Duncan Smith told Newsnight that May had to tell the EU to “bin the backstop”.
Will all the Cabinet and backbench unease actually help May in her talks with Brussels? Will the EU27 be so worried that May’s government will collapse that they will back off their backstop? Well, many experts think the EU just won’t give up its ‘insurance policy’ on the Irish border. Among them is Anand Menon, the director of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ think tank and star guest of our CommonsPeople podcast this week. Anand thinks there will be a deal and May could even squeak it past Parliament. Tune in to our podcast HERE to hear one of the most lucid, accessible explanations of what’s really going on with Brexit right now.
On the Today programme, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt hinted that the EU could relent on the Irish backstop. He quoted Angela Merkel yesterday saying ’where there’s a will, there’s a way’. However, I’m not sure the EU will have appreciated his suggestion that his infamous Tory conference ‘EU-SSR’ warning had actually forced them into being nicer to the PM. “In the period since that speech we have had a very different approach from the EU,” Hunt said. He also suggested “a few months” of extra transition was a price worth paying for the bigger prize of a Brexit that kept the UK together.
That may all be just wishful thinking if Tory MPs remain unconvinced. And Hunt himself seemed acutely aware of the dangers to the PM. “The great strength of the EU is that 27 nations have remained united - and we have to do same for Theresa May,” he said. The next few days will be rocky indeed. May’s fate remains in the hands of her Tory MPs and of the EU’s Michel Barnier. And she desperately needs them both to cut her some slack before closing time.
2. MERCER’S COMPANY
Former Army officer and now Tory MP Johnny Mercer is currently on national TV screens taking part in Channel 4’s Celebrity Hunted, dodging capture as he ducks in and out of the House of Commons. Tory whips and No.10 may be on his tail too after an extraordinarily frank interview with The House magazine. The quotes are too numerous to fit here (read the full article), but in a nutshell Mercer says May’s government is ‘a shitshow’, that he just ‘wouldn’t vote’ for any party right now and that he’s ‘not comfortable’ with the PM’s move away from modernising Conservativism.
Most ominous of all is this line: “I think it’s very clear that this current administration under this Chief Whip, under this Prime Minister, there is no role for people like me. That’s fine because nothing lasts forever.” Mercer adds that voters are thinking “yeah alright, you might sort out Brexit eventually but actually, my operation was cancelled again last week”. Jeremy Corbyn may be tempted to quote all this next week in PMQs, but for the fact that Mercer is withering about the Labour leader too: “Jeremy Corbyn maybe a nice chap, but him and more importantly his team in charge of this country would fundamentally change Britain, what it means to be British.”
What Mercer really longs for, it seems, is either a Tory party led by a moderniser (him? Tom Tugendhat?), or a brand new centrist party. But efforts to set one up are still dogged by huge problems, political and practical. The perception that big business and big money are driving that effort is sometimes hard to avoid. Yesterday’s latest register of MPs’ interests showed that Labour’s Chuka Umunna will be paid £65,040 a year to chair a new think tank, Progressive Centre. He will be spending 12 hours per month on his work – a whopping hourly rate of £451. And this from someone who served the Shadow Cabinet of Ed Miliband, who famously said he would as PM ban ‘second-jobbing MPs’…
3. SAUDI PARTNER
Even Donald Trump can’t ignore strong, credible intel presented to him by his spooks and it looks like that’s exactly what he’s seen in the case of ‘disappeared’ Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Having only days ago played down the alleged murder, the US President admitted last night that “it certainly looks” like the exiled dissident was dead. He promised a “very severe” US response, but hinted sanctions would not be an option. As the hunt for Khashoggi’s body in woodland intensified, Jeremy Hunt told Today there would be ‘consequences for Saudi Arabia’ if Khashoggi’s murder was proven. “Part of our reaction will depend on the Saudi reaction and whether we sense they are taking it as seriously as we are”. That sounded like a big caveat. Even if the murderers are tried and jailed, how is it possible they could have operated without very senior ministerial approval?
Britain and the US are to boycott an investment conference due next week in Riyadh. Investment bank Goldman Sachs yesterday announced it would not send any executives to the conference. But as if to prove how much money talks, other major businesses such as Pepsi and EDF (and our own BAe) still intend to attend. As for the wider realpolitik, former Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis tweeted this very revealing conversation: “Me to senior diplomat: ‘this Saudi thing is terrible’/‘O they do it all the time’/‘What, murder, hit squads?’/‘Of course, & the Russians & the Chinese, & the Turks actually; Erdogan only publicised this one as a power play on Trump’/‘Good God’/‘Andrew, you are naive’”
The extent of Saudi power and money in the UK is laid bare today in an excellent Daily Mail front page story. It shows that the Kingdom has tripled in just two years the amount it spends on MPs to pay for luxury hotels and business class flights. In 2016, they accepted £35,062 of gifts and other benefits from the regime. This year the figure is more than three times higher at £106,418 – and it is only October. Will individual MPs now refuse to take any more freebies?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this sad case of a white woman who falsely accused a 9-year-old black boy in New York of sexually assaulting her. She apologised but the boy’s words are telling: “She needs help”.
4. GETTING HEARD
Some international ‘summits’ can be mere talking shops where politicians mouth platitudes and little real progress is made. Yesterday, the ‘Safeguarding’ summit in London was sparked into life as former aid worker Alexia Pepper De Caires interrupted a speech by International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt to make a powerful case for more action on abuses of power in the charity sector. Watch the encounter HERE. What’s most impressive is the way both women handle the situation. The protestor is the politest you’ve ever heard, yet her case sounded all the stronger because of her steely, quietly-controlled anger. Mordaunt thinks quickly on her feet too, offering to give up the final session to the protestors.
5. ZERO HOUR
Another day, another example of MPs finally wising up to the urgency of our climate change emergency? The Commons Business Committee has said a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars should be brought forward by eight years to 2032. Current government plans to ensure all new cars are “effectively zero emission” by 2040 were “vague and unambitious”. Chairwoman Rachel Reeves said the targets gave “little clarity or incentive to industry or the consumer to invest in electric cars.” She also criticised cuts to subsidies and the lack of charging points nationwide.
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