Last week’s Brady amendment on Brexit saw the Commons vote by a majority for some ‘alternative arrangements’ to keep the Northern Ireland border open once the UK finally, fully quits the EU. Theresa May knows two things: first, that the amendment’s vague wording needs to be turned into concrete proposals that can be put to Brussels; second, that any such proposals need to hold together the fragile coalition of Leavers and Remainers in her party.
That’s why, nearly a week after the vote that gave May fresh hope of reviving her deal, she still hasn’t gone to Brussels. Today, three days of ‘brainstorming’ will begin as the ‘alternative arrangements working group’ (with key figures like Steve Baker and Nicky Morgan) use Cabinet Office, Treasury and other civil service expertise to try to hammer out the detail. Leavers argue this should have been done ages ago when David Davis first argued for technological solutions to the border issue, but they also believe the EU will blink because we are now so close to Exit Day. Remainers counter that ‘AA’ is an apt moniker for what they see as Eurosceptics’ almost alcoholic addiction to the fantasy that such technology can be identified and tested, in time and with enough certainty, to make the backstop guarantee redundant.
No.10 is hedging its bets though, amid reports that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has been tasked with finding a legally binding codicil or addendum to the UK-EU withdrawal agreement. Brexiteers have already warned there will be ‘trouble ahead’ if linguistic flummery is deployed again. Few Leavers are worried about May’s ‘no Brexit’ threat, believing the PM will get such a backlash from even a short extension to Article 50 that she will then run out of road. One former minister tells me: “she’s been playing chicken with her party, when she should have been staring down Brussels.’
This morning, Justice Secretary David Gauke didn’t deny a short extension could happen. “We need to leave the EU in a smooth and orderly way, our objective is to do that on the 29 March,” he told the Today programme. “But I think it is important that it is a smooth and orderly departure, that is key.” That was another reminder of his steadfast opposition to a disorderly, no-deal exit. Asked if he’d quit in those circumstances, he replied: “I don’t believe the responsible course is to make that conscious decision.” As for these ‘alternative arrangements’, Gauke was diplomatic. He denied he’d said Brexit unicorns had to be ‘slaughtered’, but admitted they should be ‘slayed’. “Much the same thing, but slightly less bloodthirsty,” he joked. Dead or alive, the key in coming days is just how those unicorns/innovations (delete as appropriate) are described in the actual withdrawal agreement text. Everything else really is just fantasy.
2. ELECTILE DYSFUNCTION
The Opinium/Observer poll this weekend put the Tories on 40% to Labour’s 34%, their biggest lead since 2017. Even though a poll of polls has Labour just slightly behind the Conservatives, the survey set tongues wagging again about a possible snap election. The Mail on Sunday reported some No.10 insiders are pencilling in a ‘D-Day’ poll on June 6, after a short Brexit extension and final deal delivered in April. There’s no question some May allies see a general election as a runner. But others have told me that she’ll never be allowed to fight another one and the party would need a new leader with a good ‘run-up’ of at least six months in the job.
Given that the constant run of big Tory poll leads in 2017 were then followed by the loss of a Commons majority, few Tory MPs trust the polls and many fear Corbyn could again build momentum in a short campaign. The ‘time for a change’ message is even stronger after nine years of Tory-led government than it was after seven. And BuzzFeed’s Alex Wickhamhas picked up on panic in the WhatsApp group of Tory MPs, with Conor Burns saying talk of a snap poll was ‘very unsettling’ and Nicholas Soames dubbing it ’amateur night. Boris Johnson uses his Telegraph column to claim it’s all a plot to scare Brexiteers into line. Party chairman Brandon Lewis has yet to calm the troops but expect someone to do so today.
Meanwhile, Nick Boles is facing the real threat of deselection by local party activists furious with his claim that he could resign the party whip in the event of a no-deal. The Times reports Boles is unfazed: “If they decide to kick me out of the Conservative Party, so be it.” Next week his local party will ask him to declare within 21 days whether he will seek “re-adoption” as its parliamentary candidate. His constituency chairman Philip Sagar said: “People want somebody who’s not in Notting Hill, who’ll turn up locally and reflect its views. They feel he’s not one of us.” Uncannily, that last line is a reminder of Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, that she liked politicians who were ‘one of us’. It’s also a reminder that Boles’s seat of Grantham was Mrs T’s birthplace.
3. RED ALERT
Labour’s own splits on Brexit finally broke into the open last week, of course. Anger over offers of ‘bribes’ to Leave areas, plus yesterday’s Sunday Times report on plans for a new centrist party, may well feature at when MPs gather for the weekly PLP tonight. Add in the fresh motion on anti-semitism and it could be a busy night.
There could well be questions too about the state of the party’s finances, as well as its readiness to fight a general election. Diane Abbott told the Indy yesterday that ‘we have a lot of money put to one side’ for an election. I’m told the election fund is indeed healthy. But the party’s annual budget is another matter entirely and as I reported this weekend, the ruling NEC was told last week that the draft budget was in deficit. For the first time since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, the party is projected to be in the red. One NEC member tells me budget would not be approved “until the deficit is resolved”. General Secretary Jennie Formby says ‘we are not in deficit and nor will we be’. What she hasn’t denied is the party is projected to be in deficit unless changes are made.
Insiders point to a big increase in spending on community organisers and other staff. LabourLive festival losses (paid for from reserves) worry others. Formby said membership income was on target, but some MPs and local parties fear numbers have dropped and will continue to do so. NEC member and Momentum founder Jon Lansman said the party had been spending as if it was on an election footing, adding: “Now an election looks unlikely anytime soon, we need to cut costs to build the war chest.” Trade unions fear those ‘cut costs’ will mean a real terms pay cut or pension changes for staff. A pro-Formby twitter account, Socialist Workers In Europe, wasn’t happy, claiming Lansman was ‘still not over not being general secretary’.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this baby’s arms flip to the music. It gets better the longer it goes on.
4. THE X-FACTOR
Unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of political noise around the decision by Nissan to abandon the planned expansion of its Sunderland factory to build the new X-Trail car. Business Secretary Greg Clark is expected to either make a statement or face an Urgent Question in the Commons this afternoon. The firm itself made clear that ‘business reasons’ are behind the decision, but set off a whole flurry of reaction by adding that “the continued uncertainty around the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future”.
Nissan were due to make their announcement later this week, but SkyNews got the scoop over the weekend. Industry experts say the main reason for the decision is a global refocusing by Nissan away from diesel and petrol into e-vehicles and hybrids. In many ways, the UK is well prepared for that wider shift, with a new national battery centre and other initiatives for greener motor manufacturing. Yet the fact is that 700 new jobs from the X-Trail will no longer materialise. The EU’s new trade deal with Japan makes it easier to export from X-trail factories at home into the massive European market. And Clark tells the FT the move is ominous in terms of a no-deal Brexit. The Japanese bosses told him such a prospect would “cast a shadow over their future in Britain.”
5. WALTER MITIGANTS
Sajid Javid has won praise for the way he’s tried to refocus the May-era Home Office (on Windrush and on frontline policing cash). But when it comes to his perceived flirtation with a no-deal Brexit, some ministerial colleagues roll their eyes that he’s a Walter Mitty, prone to grand and elaborate fantasies aimed at boosting his credentials with Eurosceptics. And on security issues in a no-deal scenario, yesterday he sounded distinctly uncomfortable.
Pressed by Andrew Marr, Javid said that our ability to track missing persons and suspects would ‘change’ with no deal. “I think there will be mitigants, they’re not perfect,” he said. He refused to deny we would be less safe, simply saying the UK would still be ‘very’ safe. “Even in a no deal scenario we will continue to be one of the safest countries in the world.” Yet he knows there are deep concerns at the loss of the European Arrest Warrant and SIS2 European crime-fighting database. Concerns expressed by the Met’s counter-terror chief, ex-MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller. And most importantly by current MI5 chief Sir Andrew Parker. The real question is just how prepared the PM herself will be to lose that capability.
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