1. PLUS SIZE MODEL
There’s lots of Brexit about today and this week, but don’t hold your breath for any major clarity on the UK Government’s position on the final shape of our future relationship with the EU. Theresa May chairs the first ‘end state’ meeting of her 10-strong, Cabinet sub-committee on the issue. This afternoon she will embark on another marathon Commons statement on her deal in Brussels. Tomorrow, the whole Cabinet meets to allow each of its 28 members a say on the next steps.
On the ‘transition period’ agreed by the PM, splits have already emerged. Boris Johnson told the Sunday Times that keeping EU rules could turn us into a ‘vassal state’ (though note Jacob Rees-Mogg coined that term first, proof - as Matt D’Ancona writes - that Boris is now seen by young Brexiteers as the Nokia to Moggy’s iPhone X). Philip Hammond told SkyNews the two-year period would “effectively replicate the status quo”, adding “borders will operate as they do now”. On the latter, note that Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis (who attends Cabinet don’t forget) told Radio 5 Live yesterday his own Leave-voting constituents should be ‘credited with the intelligence of knowing what’s right for the economy’.
Tensions over the ‘transition period’ appear to be just a warm-up for the actual future trade deal, though. In overnight extracts of her Commons speech, May throws a protective arm around Liam Fox by saying during the transition the UK will not just negotiate but ‘sign’ trade treaties with other non-EU states, though they won’t come into force after 2021. More importantly, Brussels chief negotiator Michel Barnier confirmed to Prospect magazine what many of us said on Friday: the EU won’t let Britain ‘cherry pick’ its single market to allow a Canada-style trade deal that includes our all-important service sector. David Davis wants a ‘Canada plus-plus-plus’ model, but Brussels says it doesn’t exist. Will Hammond and others in Cabinet actually tell DD it’s an impossible dream?
The Sun suggests the PM could delay her reshuffle until after the May local elections (and has an intriguing suggestion Justine Greening could be axed). Delaying her preferred destination for Brexit will be similarly tempting, though it is much more fraught with danger. While all her ministers will be allowed their say today and tomorrow, May is unlikely to put her own view on the ‘end state’ until the New Year. Having surrendered on a Remainer-friendly ‘status quo’ transition, she may try to maintain Cabinet unity by backing the Leaver-friendly plus-sized model for future UK-EU trade.
From May’s previous speeches, we know she wants neither a Norway-style deal (accepting EU rules) nor a basic Canada-style option (no services, just basic goods). Will the PM place the UK half-way between Oslo and Ottawa, somewhere in the north Atlantic? Brexiteers love the idea of a swashbuckling, buccaneering Britain trading on the 21s century’s open seas. But with the EU refusing to budge, some Remainer Cabinet ministers fear that we will end up closer to the chilly coast of Canada - the precise spot where a giant iceberg sank the Titanic.
2. NORWEGIAN WOULD?
While the Tory Cabinet position on the ‘end state’ is currently unresolved, Labour has been slowly evolving its own stance, shifting towards a ‘soft Brexit’. On the transition, Keir Starmer (who is in Brussels today I’m told) can rightly claim the Government have copied his plan to keep the UK in the customs union during a two-year period. However, he has also talked about going further and making such an arrangement permanent. Don’t forget at Labour’s conference Starmer said: “Remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour”. Yes, he said ‘end destination’. The Times today reports Shadow Cabinet ministers saying party policy would indeed come out for indefinite membership of a modified customs union. “It think we’re almost there,” one senior frontbencher said.
Peter Mandelson in the FT on Saturday suggested Starmer had the backing of Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Just how this ‘new relationship with the single market’ (that’s the latest formulation) would allow control over migration is unclear. But if Labour does indeed opt for a ‘Norway-style’ model (and some in the Commission think the party may back EFTA or EEA membership), it will in some ways make sense. While he’s portrayed as ‘leftwing’ in the UK, Corbyn would in Norway be seen as a mainstream social democrat (his views on nationalisation, taxation, a mild Euroscepticism). Note that he’s also been talking to the Norwegian Labour Party about Brexit (I wonder if he offered election tips, given his sister party had its worst ever general election result this year?)
Still, on the issue of whether there should be a ‘second referendum’ on any final deal, Labour appears confused to say the least. Diane Abbott had an uncomfortable moment on Marr when confronted with a letter to her constituents which said she would back “the right of the electorate to vote on any deal that is finally agreed.” The Shadow Home Secretary suggested she’d not meant a direct referendum but instead meant voters’ wishes would be expressed in Parliament with a meaningful vote by their MPs (it’s possible she could have meant a general election would give voters a real say on any deal, but things are confusing enough so let’s not go there). On Radio 5’s Pienaar’s Politics yesterday, I pushed Tom Watson on a second referendum yesterday and he said while one was not ‘likely’, “when you are in complex negotiations on behalf the nation you shouldn’t rule anything out”.
3. HUDSON CROSSING
She’s secured a ‘successful’ EU summit and is expected to avoid a Commons defeat on Wednesday on EU Withdrawal Bill on Exit Dates. Yet one box in the PM’s political advent calendar remains unopened: the Damian Green inquiry. The Telegraph says the report into his alleged misconduct (covering behaviour towards a young activist Kate Maltby and porn found on a computer in his office) is due in the next 48 hours.
The Guardian reveals Maltby received ‘violent threats’ after the Daily Mail published a piece calling her ‘one very pushy lady’, though it carries strong denials from Green allies that he or his aides had anything to do with the article. The one big worry in No10 is if Green is cleared, and kept in post, only for fresh allegations to surface at a later date. And the Sunday Times yesterday reported that he could face a fresh inquiry by Parliamentary Commissioner Kathryn Hudson as her remit is expanded to include harassment allegations. As I’ve been saying for some time, putting the Cabinet Office’s Sue Gray in charge of the Green inquiry has seemed odd (Labour’s Jess Phillips said it was akin to ‘people marking their own homework’).
The Telegraph’s Laura Hughes, who has led the way in exposing some of the Westminster sex harassment claims, reports today that Labour is facing fresh questions about its own internal investigations into the issue. One unnamed Labour MP who allegedly pestered a young female official to “come back to my hotel” is not facing an investigation after the party said the incident was not sexual harassment.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch 16-year-old Ayrton Little’s reaction (and that of his friends) when he finds out whether he’s got into Harvard University.
4. PAYS YEMENI, TAKES YOUR CHOICE
The appalling suffering of the people of Yemen is yet another international crisis that shows no sign of resolution. But new International Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt has put the issue back on the map by telling the Telegraph that Saudi Arabia could be breaching international law with its blockade of its smaller neighbor. Mordaunt also pledged an extra £50m in UK aid, but will the UK Government hint in any way at curbs on arms deals to Saudi (as Jeremy Corbyn has been urging) if its ally does indeed breach international law? Meanwhile, the UK’s new national security adviser Mark Sedwill appears for the first time before the Commons joint committee on national security later today.
5. PENSION TENSION
David Gauke has DWP Questions later and is sure to face fresh questions about new Universal Credit claimants going empty-handed over Christmas. But for once his pensions role took precedence this weekend with his plan auto-enrol 18-year-olds into workplace pensions. Crucially the self-employed (and ‘gig economy’ workers) won’t be affected and the DWP analysis also revealed that there were 12 million people under-saving for their retirement. The FT splashes quotes from the TUC attacking the slow pace of reform. The Mail highlights that six million people earning more than £34k are not saving, dubbing it a ‘Middle Class Pension Crisis’.