1. SOFT SELL
Ken Clarke’s customs union plan is set for another go again tonight as MPs take part in a fresh round of indicative votes (in the Commons’ acronym-obsessed world, today is ‘IV2’, and we could get ‘IV3’ on Wednesday). In the eyes of many ministers, the Clarke plan is the least soft ‘soft Brexit’ option in town, a tweak of May’s own divorce deal that could be sorted with a quick, short section in the ‘political declaration’ and one that Brussels could sign off smoothly.
The customs union proposal was defeated by just six votes last week. But it won’t be easy for the Hush Puppy (are they still a thing?) wearing, soft-shoe shuffling Father of the House to squeeze more votes from Labour and Tory MPs who abstained last time. And although he has some serious Cabinet support, the Cabinet were last time whipped to abstain. Moreover, the backlash has started among Brexiteer ministers. The Times splashes on a story that several ministers are set to warn May tomorrow not to adopt the Clarke plan, with May’s political secretary Stephen Parkinson (ex Vote Leave alumnus) dead against it.
David Gauke was chosen by No.10 to present the government’s case on Marr yesterday. “We are going to have to consider very carefully the will of Parliament,” he said. “My party does not have the votes to get its manifesto commitments through the House of Commons…Sometimes you have to accept your second or third choice to avoid an outcome you consider to be even worse.” So it’s no wonder some of his Leaver colleagues (not least Liam Fox) smell a rat. Especially as the EU’s Michel Barnier has said the customs union could be fast-tracked in 48 hours. The Sun reveals junior ministers have been ringing backbenchers to rally support for Clarke. Treasury Chief Sec Liz Truss hit back on the Today prog, dissing the customs union as a ‘back of the envelope’ alternative.
The People’s Vote people are still hoping they can show momentum today tonight. They surprised many last week by getting the most votes for any Plan B option (though Clarke’s had a narrower defeat). Yet moves to get a compromise motion that creates a customs union v Remain referendum have not seemed to work out. Nick Boles is still pushing his Common Market 2.0 option too. The votes start at 8pm but could take some time. We will find out at the start of the debate around 3.30pm which amendments the Speaker has selected.
The real problem for the ‘indicative votes’ process is that it so far fails to do anything more than ‘indicate’. Sir Oliver Letwin or his fellow grandees have not yet found a way to force a choice on MPs, though a preferential voting system or ‘X-factor’ style run-off (via a business motion). The Catch 22 here is that you need a majority of MPs to get a system that compels MPs to get a majority they currently lack. Until that nettle has been grasped (and to be fair Ken Clarke has backed a forced run-off), we could see IV3, IV4, IV5 and still be in Parliamentary limbo. Don’t forget that if there’s no conclusive outcome tonight, the PM wants to push her own deal a FOURTH time, either tomorrow or on Thursday.
2. JULIAN CALENDAR
Into all this mix, chief whip Julian Smith has dropped a bombshell. In Laura Kuenssberg’s documentary The Brexit Storm due out tonight, Smith says that when May failed to get a majority in the 2017 election, “the government as a whole probably should have just been clearer on the consequences of that. The Parliamentary arithmetic would mean that this would be inevitably a kind of softer type of Brexit.” He then adds that he has witnessed ministers “sitting around the cabinet table... trying to destabilise her…the worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history”. So, here we have the man in charge of discipline saying the PM should have got real about a soft Brexit ages ago. I know it’s 2019 and all that, but this really is something.
Smith has swiftly clarified this morning that he thought this BBC documentary was coming out after Brexit was sorted. It was meant to be retrospective view, except that March 29 is now April 12. Yet his remarks may be more evidence for Brexiteers that a soft Brexit is part of some cunning conspiracy. Given that Smith is widely seen as the pre-heated campaign manager for a Gavin Williamson leadership bid, his candour may have harmed his colleague’s chances. Backbenchers will want to know why on earth was the chief whip on telly anyway, after his last tricky outing on ITV.
The biggest difficulty for Smith is that many backbenchers, and some in No.10, think that government whipping operation has been lamentable for months. The whips say they can’t do anything to change policy and simply do their best with a bad hand, yet it’s notable how Labour’s own whipping has held firm (last week just five Labour MPs backed May), as well as the European Research Group’s (ERG).
Nick Boles was also unamused last night by the way his whips have been briefing against his Norway style Brexit plan (in contrast, it was given a fair wind by Corbyn’s whipping ‘encouragement’ tactic): “Conservative whips are actively briefing against Common Market 2.0. I would like to make one thing clear to @JulianSmithUK If you want us to carry on voting for the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement, you need to stop trying to scupper alternatives.”
3. BLAIR BACK RIDERS
The next Tory leadership race hasn’t formally begun. But already we are in that bit of the Grand National where all the horses are flailing around before the white start line tape has been properly spun over the track. Some steeds are facing the opposite direction, some looking frisky, others are just eyeing up the enormous size of the fences. Dominic Raab yesterday tried to clear his handicap of allegations of bullying junior staff. Michael Gove is “75 per cent likely to run, possibly as high as 90 per cent”, one ally told the Times.
But Boris Johnson is the man who Raab and Gove have to somehow beat into third place in the MPs’ ballot, with many sure the former foreign secretary could storm the membership if he gets into the top two (and survives ‘vassal state’ flip-flop attacks by people like John Major). And Boris supporters were delighted last night to see an unlikely boost to his campaign from none other than Tony Blair. In his HuffPost interview, the ex-PM told me: “If you have a Boris Johnson led Conservative Party, he’s a formidable campaigner, he’s an interesting personality, he can get out there and do his stuff, for sure.”
Blair wasn’t endorsing Boris, but was warning what could happen if he’s underestimated. And his kicker was important, as he explained Bojo could be trounced by a moderate Labour Party (or other moderate party): “Many Conservative voters voters that will feel repelled by a Boris Johnson premiership, particularly after the part he’s played in Brexit, but you’ve got to be in a position where those people feel it’s safe to vote for you. You suddenly offer them a revolutionary alternative from the Left, what makes you think the people who voted Tory are suddenly going to go for that? It’s a bizarre analysis of their psyche.”
I chatted to Blair for more than 40 minutes and the interview ranges far and wide. He counsels MPs against backing a customs union this week, saying the priority is to get a long extension of Article 50 and then spend ‘a few months’ hammering out the options. He also hints that Macron is bluffing when he says he may reject pleas for a long delay. On Labour, Blair says the only route for centrists is to get more centrists signed up as party members. And on the US Democrats, he’s very down on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, and the wider leftward shift.
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4. BLADE RUNNERS
There’s a knife summit held by the PM and Home Secretary Sajid Javid today. Under a new ‘public health’ approach first pioneered in Glasgow, teachers, NHS workers and police officers will be expected to spot violent crime among young people. Scotland leading the way, once more?
5. COMEDIC VALUE
In the Ukraine, a comedian with no political experience has posted a strong lead against the incumbent in the first round of Presidential elections. With just over half of the votes counted on Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had 30.2% of the vote, Petro Poroshenko was a distant second with about 16.6%. Zelenskiy is a big anti-corruption campaigner and wants direct talks with Moscow to end the conflict in the east of his country. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.
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