1. DANGEROUS LIAISON?
Almost exactly two years ago, Theresa May used her Lancaster House speech to issue her famous warning that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. Since then she’s lost her majority, her authority and her argument. And with just 74 days until Brexit Day, she’s been reduced to making a desperate plea to her own Tory MPs that ‘a bad deal is better than no Brexit at all’. That’s why she’s in Stoke this morning, the heart of LeaveLand (and Labour LeaveLand at that), making her last big public speech before tomorrow’s ‘meaningful vote’.
In a tactic typical of May’s stubbornly incremental approach to politics, she wants to reduce the scale of the expected defeat, backbencher by backbencher, to give her breathing space to bring back a tweaked plan in a second vote. Her new message has shifted four senior Tory backbenchers already, with Sir Edward Leigh and Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown among those who worry much more about losing Brexit than about the shoddiness of the PM’s deal. Add in the drip-drip of Labour MPs (Sir Kevin Barron has joined John Mann and Jim Fitzpatrick) signalling they can back May’s plan, and you can see the logic. The problem is it may be too little, too late.
But although May has gone quiet on the no-deal threat, it’s such a scary prospect that MPs want to make it legally impossible. Nick Boles (and Nicky Morgan and Sir Oliver Letwin) will publish their ‘European Union Withdrawal No.2’ Bill tonight. This gives the Commons three weeks after the defeat of May’s deal to come up with a new compromise, and if no agreement is reached then hands unprecedented power to the Liaison Committee of senior MPs. The Liaison Committee would then recommend a single option and put it to MPs for a further vote. But here’s the kicker: whatever MPs then decided would ‘legally require’ the government to implement it. Dangerous territory indeed.
The Boles bill sounds outlandish to many constitutional experts, and it seems to me legally dubious to think Parliament can try to negotiate international treaties rather than a government. Liaison Committee member Sarah Wollaston has given it a big thumbs down this morning (she’s a People’s Voter, as opposed to a Boles Norwegian, which underscores the disunity across the House right now). Boles told the Today programme that he wanted just ‘one day’ where Parliament instructed the PM what to do. “It isn’t a coup, it’s an expression of Parliamentary will,” he said. Funnily enough, that was an echo of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s line before Christmas when he defended his letter of no confidence in the PM: “’Coup is entirely the wrong word, indeed it’s rather a silly word.” No.10 will be hoping Boles has as much success as Rees-Mogg.
John McDonnell told Radio 4 this was ‘Parliament at its best, forcing the executive to not take Parliament for granted any more…Governments have to take much more account of the will of Parliament’. But there may even be some around Jeremy Corbyn quietly hoping that this doesn’t become a habit. For all the principled words, it’s hard to see how a minority Labour government would want a precedent under which its rebel MPs could block what their leader wanted to do.
2. ALTERNATIVE OFFERS
In that Lancaster House speech two years ago, it’s worth remembering May’s own combative words on no-deal. “We would be free to strike trade deals across the world,” she said. “And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. And – if we were excluded from accessing the single market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.” That threat of a Singapore-style low tax, low regulation Britain is indeed what several Tory Brexiteers are today pushing hard.
The Sun and Telegraph have a letter written by 12 former ministers (including Boris Johnson and IDS) to fellow MPs in which they back no-deal, despite its ‘short-term inconvenience and disruption’. Dominic Raab has his own ‘Brexit and beyond’ speech today that looks pretty much like a leadership manifesto. Boris admitted on LBC this morning that he was wrong to have ‘bottled it’ by pulling out of the leadership race when Michael Gove knifed him in 2016. “In retrospect, if I had my time again I may have done things differently.” (He also said he’s “not sure” that Jaguar Land Rover’s chief exec knows more about the car industry than he does).
As for Parliamentary guerrilla warfare, never forget that the hardcore Brexiteers can play that game too. If May comes up with a Brexit they don’t like, they could join Labour to try to kill tax-raising measures, ministerial salaries, you name it. But their opponents think they look increasingly desperate. One Cabinet minister tells me last week’s Parliamentary revolt against no-deal was just the start. “We are past the point of the hardest Brexit. As every day passes, we are heading to a softer Brexit. That’s what my colleagues should understand,” they said.
Meanwhile, MPs backing the rival alternatives of Norway-Plus and People’s Vote will step up their activity today. Dominic Grieve publishes his bill for a second referendum (backed by the significant figure of former Commons Clerk Lord Lisvane). The PM’s argument against a fresh vote (saying no one called for a new vote after the narrow Welsh devolution referendum) is a flat-out lie, as Stephen Bush points out. As for Norway, Labour’s call for a ‘permanent customs union’ plus its strong single market suggests it could be a way for Corbyn to avoid a People’s Vote. The main problem would be all those Tory MPs who would say Norway really isn’t Brexit at all. And would May really tolerate the breaching of her reddest of red lines on free movement?
3. INTENTION TENSION
The EU’s long-awaited letter of ‘assurances, clarifications, guarantees’ is expected to be published today. But few expect that it will contain any of the “legally binding” assurances that the PM promised her Cabinet and her MPs late last year. If all we get is a list of good intentions (‘intention’ is the buzzword right now it seems, with Brexit Secretary last week recently it was his ‘firm intention’ not to seek an extension to Article 50), the DUP and others will rightly say nothing has changed. The road to Brexit hell is paved with good intentions, Leavers will argue. Former EU and UN ambassador Lord Hannay has blogged: “No wonder the DUP…do not seem to be much impressed. Why should they be? …Within the terms of their own logic, the government’s desperate wriggling simply does not cut it.”
As I reported last week, No.10 knows that the DUP and Tory MPs want ‘a ladder not a fig leaf’. And they haven’t given up hope of squeezing the rebel numbers down. As we reported on Friday, one plan is for a new amendment-to-an-amendment (ie an amendment to the Hugo Swire amendment), putting a time limit on the Irish backstop. The Sunday Tel suggested Alex Chalk could be the man to table it, but given he’s a PPS to Cabinet minister Matt Hancock maybe that looked a bit too nakedly a government move. Instead, as BuzzFeed reports, it’s the backbencher Andrew Murrison who is set to table the new amendment.
The PM may be cheered too by the Guardian story that Brussels is open to a ‘technical’ extension of Article 50 to give her a few more weeks to get a deal from Parliament. But the scale of tomorrow’s defeat still matters in determining how much time May will have. Even Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who now backs the PM, told Westminster Hour last night that if the defeat is massive, Brussels may not want to offer any new concessions because they would never get support. “If she loses by a very large amount I think they’ll simply say to themselves; well look, the House of Commons is basically against this proposal, why should we give the prime minister any help?” With friends like these…
Meanwhile, Brexiteer Maria Caulfield has made plain she won’t be folding so easily. In a blog for HuffPost UK today, she says: “The UK’s first working day post-Brexit will be Monday 1 April – April Fools’ Day. If we leave with this deal, we, our children and grandchildren will be treated as fools for evermore.” And on the Today programme, Liam Fox said of a no-deal Brexit: “I don’t regard no deal as national suicide.” He also said it was ‘survivable’ and better than Dunkirk. He also made a new constitutional argument to counter Grieve, Boles et al: in holding the 2016 EU referendum, Parliament ‘contracted out’ its sovereignty to the people and ‘it has a duty to honour that contract’.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Leave-supporting Premier league manager Neil Warnock support the PM’s plan. His team Cardiff may be just above the relegation zone and his line ‘To hell with the rest of the world’ may not be very diplomatic. But you can bet No.10 were delighted to get his backing.
4. REGRETS, THEY’VE HAD A FEW
The House of Lords has taken a back seat in the whole Brexit saga of late, not least as it’s the Commons that really has the final say and as peers can revise rather than block legislation. But the Lords still matters, especially with the clock ticking down to March 29 and its power to delay still relevant. Tonight, shadow Lords leader Angela Smith has a ‘regret’ motion on the PM’s Brexit deal, with a clear call for no-deal to be ruled out (we have a blog from shadow minister Dianne Hayter HERE explaining it). What’s interesting is that it seems the government is not (as yet) putting a whip on the vote. Either that’s an acknowledgment that so many Tory pro-Europeans can’t be whipped or it’s disrespectful to the Lords, or both.
5. JUST QUALITY
Michael Gove burnishes his ‘Green Brexit’ credentials again today as he unveils the government’s clean air strategy, with a claim that the UK will go beyond existing EU rules in tackling pollution. Wood burning stove owners, diesel drivers and farmers will all face new restrictions. But not everyone is buying it, not least the environmentalists who point out they had to drag this new strategy out of ministers because they were breaching the law (and EU law at that). They say there’s too little detail about how to get to new World Health Organisation limits and the plans fall short of EU targets enshrined in law. There’s also not enough about tackling aircraft and petrol pollution, critics add.
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