The Waugh Zone Monday December 10, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

In theory, we are on the eve of the most important British Parliamentary vote in decades. But are we in practice? We should find out today whether tomorrow’s ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit really is going ahead in the Commons. On the face of it, No.10 insists the Tuesday vote is still on track and Michael Gove was adamant this morning it would go ahead. But very senior figures in Government are not ruling out a postponement (and Sir Alan Duncan didn’t sound as firm as Gove) to allow Theresa May one final heave in getting a deal that will win over Tory backbenchers.

It may well be that things move before tomorrow. Meetings between with the PM and groups of MPs are pencilled in today, yet the real action may come in her further phone calls with Brussels and EU leaders. Last night, May talked to Irish PM Leo Varadkar and EU chiefs Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker and if feels like there’s a last-ditch move to give her some kind of concession. The PM said last week the Northern Irish backstop “would be an integral part of any Withdrawal Agreement”. Gove this morning hailed the backstop as a great British victory that had upset the EU and said he was having success persuading colleagues of that. Yet he knows the real issue is a UK break from it. If May somehow gets a fresh legal clarification on how the UK can exit it, the EU will demand a ‘downside’.

Brexiteers have long argued that hardline brinkmanship is the only language the EU will listen to and that the EU (and Ireland in particular) really does fear a ‘no deal’ outcome. Some MPs think it will take a big Commons defeat for Brussels to make concessions, but one Cabinet minister told me the EU is more than aware that the PM needs extra help. “The Europeans don’t need a vote to tell them what the mood is like in the Conservative party. They read everything written over here, and know she’s in trouble.” And Gove ridiculed the idea that somehow a defeat for the PM would strengthen her negotiating position. It would be akin to “ripping her cricket bat in half” before she reached the crease. But he also stressed: “Of course we can improve this deal and the Prime Minister is seeking to improve this deal.”

Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan didn’t exactly help UK-EU relations when he told the Today programme: “Britain could be top dog in Europe with France burning and Germany in transition” (see more below). Still, the PM sounds hopeful she could get something from Brussels. With some whips suggesting the real rebel numbers could be as low as 30, can she defy all predictions and actually win round them and the DUP with some fresh words in the Withdrawal Agreement? In 24 hours? That may sound like a fairy tale in the tradition of Mother Goose. Speaking of which, the PM’s interview with the Mail on Sunday just showed how stuck in her ways she can be. “Most people always cook turkey [for Christmas], I always cook goose. With everything else that’s going on it’s tried and tested.” With everything else going on, today will tell us whether she is going on too.

The idea of a second Brexit referendum has plenty of flaws (not least which Tory leader would get away with agreeing one), but it is certainly gaining momentum every day. Gove was withering about the idea on Radio 4, but more Tories are getting on board. On Westminster Hour last night, former speechwriter Chris Wilkins said: “If I were sitting there now advising the PM I would say that even though I agree that it could be poisonous and I think there’s all sorts of downsides with it and all sorts of problems I just think given the impasse we’re at that you have to end up at a second referendum if you can’t get your deal through and you have to put it back to the people and let them have their say.”

And defence minister Tobias Ellwood told the Sunday Times: “If parliament does not agree a Brexit deal soon, then we must recognise that the original mandate to leave, taken over two years ago, will begin to date and will, eventually, no longer represent a reflection of current intent.” One ally of Justice Secretary David Gauke tells the Telegraph today: “You have to consider plan B and try to work out where Parliament could come together around something other than Mrs May’s current deal, and so far that is looking more and more as if that will be a second referendum.”

The Telegraph has an intriguing ‘radical plan’ mooted by some ministers: allow a referendum, but only on May’s deal or no deal. The advantage of this cunning idea is that it would reassure Tory MPs that Brexit was happening for sure, while also feeding into Jeremy Corbyn’s own hints that any new poll would only have to be on the shape of Brexit, not Brexit itself. The obvious drawback however is that excluding a Remain option (call it the ‘Starmer option’, after his ad-libbed speech to Labour conference) would be anathema to many People’s Vote-backing MPs. And those MPs certainly are flexing their muscles (and Parliamentary veto) right now. They are the ones who are likely to kill Hilary Benn’s amendment tomorrow, not wanting anything to get in the way of a straight defeat of the PM’s plan. They are also the ones who once backed EEA membership, but could now kill that too.

The danger for May is that the very moment she backs a second referendum her enemies could get the 48 signatures they need for a vote of confidence. And ‘no deal’ hardcore Tories believe that no successor to May could advocate a second vote and that all they have to do is run down the clock to March 29. They may be heartened too that Sajid Javid is said to back a ‘managed no deal’, though that will do him no favours with many Tory backbenchers and ministers who fear crashing out of the EU will wreck the party’s brand for years. Meanwhile, Gove said it was ‘extreeeeemely unlikely’ he would ever run for Tory leader again. I did like his line that it was as likely as Boris Johnson or Philip Hammond signing his nomination papers, though ‘neither Bojo nor Hammo’ is probably a decent campaign slogan.

Shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan is known to be as independent-minded as her former opposite number Tracey Crouch (both also have admirers who think they could lead their parties one day). Yesterday she certainly was unafraid of any potential political risks when she was the only Labour frontbencher to speak at a People’s Vote rally. She declared May’s plan was so far from 2016′s Leave promises that “it’s time to take the Brexit decision back to the people…When this deal is voted down by Parliament, I want us to call for a general election the very next day and if that is rejected then we need a people’s vote.”

Now that was quite a canny way of pushing the envelope of Labour’s agreed Brexit position. Taking the decision ‘back to the people’ is language that covers both a general election as well as a second referendum. And the party’s carefully-worded motion agreed at its conference reads thus: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

The difference, of course, is that Allin-Khan wants her party to call for a general election the day after May loses her meaningful vote, and is then categoric that “we need” a referendum rather than saying it’s a mere option. On ITVNews, Jeremy Corbyn sounded like he disagreed: “She’s entitled to her point of view. I would rather she and every other Labour MP spent today and tomorrow and Tuesday concentrating solely on making sure we defeat this deal and I would urge everyone else in the Labour Party to do that.” Asked if she could remain on the frontbench he replied: “I’ll have a discussion with her.”

Who needs autographs when you’ve got big hands, an inkpad and a speedy paper shifter? Watch this sumo wrestler give fans his personalised approval. Hypnotic indeed.

So, the European Court of Justice has confirmed that the UK can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notice, without needing the permission of the other 27 EU states. This case, brought months ago in the Scottish Courts, is a victory for the cross-party alliance of SNP MP Joanna Cherry, Labour’s Chris Leslie and Lib Dem Tom Brake. It removes a further barrier to second referendum campaigners who want to stay in the EU, turning what was a political likelihood (the EU bending backwards to keep us in) into a legal reality. Blogging for HuffPost UK, Leslie and Brake write: “It’s a huge and game-changing moment, clarifying definitively that the British people have real choices about Brexit.”

Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan’s line about France burning was really a wider point that the UK shouldn’t be throwing away its influence within the EU. But with President Macron due to broadcast to the nation tonight, Duncan’s dissing of his handling of the ‘gilets jaunes’ sounded a tad, er, undiplomatic. Iain Duncan Smith suggested yesterday Britain would have its own yellow jacketed revolt if May betrayed Leave voters with a new referendum. Donald Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that the protests prove the French hate green taxes and the Paris climate change agreement. No, really.

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