1. INDICATOR MALFUNCTION
When Theresa May gets up for her EU summit statement in the Commons today, she will be wearily aware that this is the umpteenth time she has defended her Brexit deal, and that it still lacks a Parliamentary majority. Overnight, we were briefed that she will warn that a second referendum will cause ‘irreparable damage’ to the integrity of British politics. In a bid to unite her backbenches, she will attack Tony Blair for daring to promote another vote, but it’s likely many MPs will shrug that off as a desperate diversionary tactic from the inadequacy of her own plans. Labour can point out May’s own chief of staff Gavin Barwell has not denied the key Sunday Times report that he said a second referendum may be ‘the only way forward’.
There remains a faint glimmer of hope for the PM of winning DUP backing that could unlock a lot of backbench Tory support. Today, the government’s most senior legal officer, Jonathan Jones, travels to Brussels to try to secure a legally binding commitment that the vexed customs ‘backstop’ can be time-limited. If that can somehow get the DUP on board, you never know. Even former EU chief lawyer Jean-Claude Piris suggested this weekend an annexe could provide legal clarification.
Yet many think DUP and backbench support is still highly unlikely. That’s precisely why many in the Cabinet now think a series of ‘indicative’ votes in Parliament on all the options – from a new referendum to Norway to no deal - could be the only way through the deadlock. Last night on the Westminster Hour, solicitor general Robert Buckland said that a free vote “is certainly something we need to look at very carefully”. Buckland added that Ted Heath allowed such a move in 1971 (not always a way to win over Eurosceptics, admittedly). The real problem with the 2016 referendum was it told us what Britons didn’t want - but not what they did want. The same problem afflicts Parliament in 2018. MPs indicating what they want, even in a non-binding vote, would be a start.
This morning on the Today programme, Business Secretary Greg Clark became the latest minister to back the indicative vote idea: “If [the PM’s plan] were not to be successful, we do need to have an agreement, we can’t just have continuing uncertainty, and I think Parliament should be invited to say what it would agree with. And that’s something that I think businesses up and down the country would expect elected members to take responsibility, rather than just be critics……I hope that one way or another Parliament will come to a view on what the best deal is for the country and get on with enacting it.”
Maybe Seer of the Year award should perhaps go to Tory MP George Freeman (listen to him do a fine Michel Barnier impression on our CommonsPeople podcast this week). Last summer he predicted May would have to pre-announce the end of a Tory leadership and that a free vote was the only way out of the impasse. One down, one to go.
2. MANAGING OUT
Last week’s Cabinet meeting was cancelled rather dramatically, as the PM had to deal with the not inconsiderable matter of a vote of confidence by her own MPs. Tomorrow’s Cabinet meets in the knowledge that it’s the last chance until January for many ministers to push the PM on alternatives to her own deal. What’s been fascinating of late is just how the idea of ‘no deal’ - in particular this new idea of ‘managed no deal’ - has deeply divided the Cabinet. ‘Managing out’ is a euphemism in the corporate world for getting rid of underperforming employees without directly sacking them. Some Brexiteers still think they can manage the PM out of No.10 by causing so much delay that the clock ticks down to ‘no deal’.
On the one hand, every minister now has to update colleagues on a weekly basis on preparations for the UK leaving without an agreement on March 29, and the Treasury is releasing more of its £3bn contingency fund. But some ministers think that while emergency planning has to be done, they can’t countenance May actively opting to go ahead with no deal. Justice Secretary David Gauke made clear in the FT this weekend he would rather quit. And others like Philip Hammond, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Lidington could follow (as I said last week, this is the mass resignation that is now more of a threat than a Brexiteer walk-out).
Other ministers play the game of talking tough on no deal. Jeremy Hunt told the Sunday Telegraph “we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper”. Penny Mordaunt will today make a speech backing what has become known as “managed no deal”. The Sun says Matt Hancock will urge colleagues tomorrow to ramp up preparations, after he triggered his own department’s plans last week. The Times has a report that Sajid Javid, while wanting better preparations, is not a fan of ‘managed no deal’.
Some point out you can as much ‘manage’ no deal as you can ‘manage’ a motorway car-crash. I tweeted this weekend how every politician and journalist covering Brexit should read THIS long lecture by Sir Ivan Rogers (our man in Brussels until early 2017). Whenever any MP utters the phrase ‘managed no deal’ they should remember Rogers’ withering verdict: “the sheer dishonesty” of such language, how ‘WTO’ would be anti-free trade; the “fantasy” that the EU will be pressured by the threat of no deal; the likelihood the 27 will unilaterally “cause us asymmetric difficulties where they can”. And this: “The reality is ..there will not be some smooth rapid suite of mini side deals – from aviation to fisheries, from road haulage to data, from derivatives to customs and veterinary checks, from medicines to financial services.” The UK will react with ‘a mixture of inevitable compliance and bellicose retaliation’.
3. GIG COUNTRY
With many in Whitehall totally distracted by Brexit, the government is at least trying today to focus on other issues and its new legislation on gig economy workers’ rights is the main offering overnight. In response to Matthew Taylor’s report, employers will be required to give a ‘day one’ statement of rights for all staff setting out leave entitlements and pay. Ministers will also scrap the ‘Swedish derogation’, an end to the legal loophole which enables some firms to pay agency workers less than permanent staff.
In a blog for HuffPost, Business Secretary Greg Clark says the reforms represent the “biggest upgrade in workers’ rights in a generation”. He compares them to Shaftesbury’s Factory Acts of the 1800s, adding that a properly regulated gig economy is a key part of a modern industrial strategy. But the Government is still standing by the principle of ‘zero hours’ contracts, and Labour points out the plans do nothing to tackle the growing number of people in such precarious work.
Of course, one of the reasons Labour and many British trade unions swing behind the EU in the 1980s and 1990s was because it was seen as a protector of workers’ rights. Today, shadow Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook and GMB general secretary Tim Roache write for us on just why May’s Brexit deal would erode such rights. They pick up on the lack of legal certainty in ministers’ claims to have secured so-called ‘non-regression’ clauses on workplace rights (and on environmental protection) in the withdrawal agreement. Pennycook and Roache also seize on Liam Fox’s recent claim that post-Brexit the Tories aim to ‘deregulate the labour market’. The message is clear: no Labour MP (even in Leave heartlands) can back May’s plan because it would put at risk workers’ rights. So, MPs facing reselection threats are now coming under pressure not just from members, but also unions.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this American boy get the Christmas present he wanted more than anything. In case you think it’s mad to spoil a child before the big day itself, just keep watching to the end.
4. PERSONAL COALS
Late on Saturday, the international climate change talks in Poland ended with at least some agreement, with new transparency rules to check whether countries meet Paris 2015 pledges to cut carbon. Held in Katowice, in the heart of mining country, this was an environmental conference almost literally stuffed with coal and with politicians who want to protect the industry. But UK minister Claire Perry said something many back home missed: “We will be off coal completely by 2025. If the market doesn’t deliver, I will legislate to do so..sometimes you have to legislate as well as rely on market signals”. She also formally bid for the UK to host the crucial 2020 climate summit.
5. TESSA REMEMBERED
Last night’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) awards were a reminder of the power of sport to unite the nation and to help kids achieve their potential. Welsh tour de France winner Geraint Thomas was got his first big breakthrough came in the 2012 London Olympics. And those Olympics simply wouldn’t have happened without Dame Tessa Jowell (always a big fan of SPOTY), who passed away this year. Today’s Guardian has a wonderfully touching tribute written by her daughter Jess. Among the stories, one that sticks out is that Tessa was ready to quit as a minister rather than miss her 10-year-old son’s school play.
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