1. GRIP HOOK
In his own inimitable way, Donald Trump put his finger on it: “You know, for a couple of years, you have very strong lack of being able to do things”. In his interview with Piers Morgan, the US President was referring to the UK’s post-Brexit ‘status quo’ transition period that so infuriates many Eurosceptic MPs. But even away from Brexit, some of Theresa May’s most critical backbenchers think a ‘very strong lack of being able to do things’ is a neat way to describe her lack of leadership skills, near-zero connection with the public, botched reshuffle, policy stagnation and failure of vision.
The growing unease among Eurosceptics over ‘Brexit in name only’, plus the slow realisation among others that May is a drag-anchor on winning the next election, makes for a lethal cocktail of dissent. Backbench rebel Heidi Allen tweeted yesterday that “the old guard hangs on in and doesn’t understand why we need to change…get a grip and lead”. Backbencher Rob Halfon told the BBC: “We need to have less policy-making by tortoise and (more) policy-making by lion.” Or as one former minister put it to me: “After the reshuffle, more people now see just how shit she really is at all this”. Johnny Mercer MP said there was a risk of a Corbyn government “if we don’t get our shit together”. Jacob Rees-Mogg told Robert Peston “I am biting my tongue on the personality question”. He meant Philip Hammond, but has also rather ominously been hinting that May herself is not indispensable: “The leader is important but the party is more important. Brexit is more important than anyone other than the Queen.”
So is the PM’s future in No10 really at risk? Well, one senior MP joked to me yesterday that her trip to China this week had echoes of “Thatcher in Paris, 1990, while the cat’s away..” (don’t forget the ex-PM was in France at the height of the Tory rebellion against her back in London, just before she was ousted). Former Tory chairman Grant Shapps made plain yesterday that one way out of all this for May would be to announce she would not fight the 2022 general election. She could at a stroke call the bluff of her potential successors, none of whom is yet ready and all of whom would have to line up behind a form of words that supported her. David Cameron himself had sent a similar signal and despite an initial flurry it hadn’t undermined his authority, the argument goes. May could buy herself some time to get to at least 2019 and Brexit Day or even beyond to 2021, it’s claimed.
Only Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, knows just how close we are to the fateful 48 Tory MPs letters needed to automatically trigger a vote of confidence in May. I’m told more want to submit letters today, even though some colleague are asking them to hold off to see if May does indeed announce she won’t fight the next election. “It’s her last great opportunity to set her own departure, without making it random or messy,” one MP tells me. “The letter process means this is a one-way ratcheting, and things can only get worse.” (Only one letter has ever been withdrawn, once sent, and that was under Cameron). Even if this current squall dies down, each fresh new blow-up risks adding to that letter-writing total. Even if she does ‘get a grip’, she’s caught on the hook of the party’s relentless internal rules on leadership contests.
The alternative scenario is that May sits tight, hopes Cabinet unity holds over Brexit, and keeps Rees-Mogg and his group of hardline Brexiteers on board. Even if the 48 letter target is reached, if none of her potential successors wants a contest right now, she could possibly win a confidence vote by a big margin, and fight on. Another opinion poll put the Tories neck and neck with Labour this weekend, May’s allies point out. Still, all PMs in trouble know the pressure is off when the Commons isn’t sitting and MPs can’t plot among themselves. Which is why No10 will be very grateful to make it to the February 8 half-term recess next Thursday. But if the local election results are a disaster in May, and Eurosceptics feel sold out over a status quo Brexit, the PM’s fate may well be out of her hands. That’s when those who want to succeed her really will have to make judgement calls as big as hers.
2. GO SWIVEL
The PM chairs her ‘inner Cabinet’ sub-committee on Brexit again today, though few expect any big developments ahead of wider ‘end state’ Cabinet discussions to come. I understand attendees at this regular gathering value it precisely because its smaller size allows deeper debate. One Cabinet minister tells me that David Davis has strong support from colleagues in his approach to the negotiations with Brussels: no rigid public red lines, give and take. Yet they also think DD’s approach can only work if there is ‘discipline’ within the Tory party to let him get on with it. “David knows what needs to be done. We can’t box him in”. Davis is before the Lords EU Committee today at 2.30pm.
Yet as Eurosceptic patience runs thin with the PM, it’s running thin with DD too. Maybe that’s why he joined Philip Hammond and Greg Clark late on Friday night in writing an open letter to business (and effectively to the Tory party too) stating that while little would change during the two-year transition, it really would be ‘time limited’ and not open-ended. What really spooked several Brexiteer MPs on Friday was the Telegraph report that it had asked Brussels for flexibility on lengthening the transition. Government said that was a ‘lie’, yet today’s Times reports the EU expects the UK will indeed seek an extended exit transition period – but keep it secret to avoid further anger. Let’s see if the EU guidelines due today allow for such a prospect. “It is going to take years, at best three, more realistically five,” one source tells the paper. You can see why some Tory MPs buy into Trump’s line that “I would have taken a tougher stand in getting out”.
You don’t have to look far for Brexit beef within the Tory party. The Telegraph has a leaked WhatsApp message from new Cabinet minister Claire Perry, attacking those hardline Brexiteers who accused the PM’s backers as ‘sellouts’ or ‘traitors’. “I would hypothesise that they are mostly elderly retired men who do not have mortgages, school-aged children or caring responsibilities so they represent the swivel-eyed few not the many we represent.” Calling Leave voters ‘swivel-eyed’ is not a great career move in the Conservative party, but Perry seems unapologetic.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill hits the Lords tomorrow, starting months of detailed scrutiny. Despite Andrew Adonis’s vociferous complaints about a lack of timetabled speaking time on Second Reading, Labour’s Lords team are pretty relaxed about what amounts to two long days of debate. In fact, shadow Brexit minister Baroness Hayter has issued a statement that while the party wants to amend key parts of the EU bill, it would also “deal with some of the nonsense out there that the Lords will block or wreck the legislation”. Newly-chosen Labour chief whip is Tommy McAvoy, so there’ll be no lack of discipline.
From noon today, we at HuffPost are hosting a Facebook Live Q&A on Brexit, with the leading independent think tank, UK in a Changing Europe, ready to answer any of your questions.
3. HOMES WHERE THE HEART IS
Jeremy Corbyn had a typically forthright answer on the Marr Show when asked how he’d tackled Britain’s growing homelessness crisis: “Immediately purchase 8,000 properties across the country to give emergency housing to those people who are currently homeless and at the same time require local authorities to build far more.”
But (as with the 2017 manifesto) before anyone thinks this is Marxism in action, party officials later made clear the 8,000 homes would not be bought using compulsory purchase powers but would be acquired by “immediately striking a deal” with housing associations to free them up as they fell vacant. Labour would make better use of existing ‘empty dwelling management orders’, which give councils powers to let out properties which have been vacant for at least two years. (For his part, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis has blogged for HuffPost on figures out over the weekend showing the number of first-time buyers getting onto the housing ladder is at its highest level since 2007).
Yet Corbyn is facing a serious backlash from his own Labour council leaders after last week’s NEC vote on Haringey’s public-private housing development plans (first revealed on HuffPost). What struck me most about their letter to the Sunday Times (which condemned the “dangerous and alarming precedent” of the vote) was the fact that it was led by NEC member and Newcastle city council leader Nick Forbes and he warned it would have been seen as ‘a declaration of war’ if Haringey had been ordered, not urged, to pause its plans. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said yesterday “we have asked for a pause, not necessarily a change in policy”. That word ‘necessarily’ may not reassure people like Forbes.
Some on the NEC felt that the Haringey vote was a real ambush, with papers tabled late and a scramble by opponents to amend the motion. Apparently, the first time Andrew Gwynne knew he’d been appointed chief mediator in the dispute was when he read it on my Twitter feed. But while some council leaders are rallying behind Haringey’s embattled leader Claire Kober, Labour’s new MP for Brighton Kemptown last night suggested Kober and others should ‘take note’ of local opposition ‘or leave [the] party’. Let’s see what the PLP says about all this tonight.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Hillary Clinton giving a shout-out to ‘activist bitches supporting bitches’.
4. ABOMINABLE SHOWMAN
Piers Morgan’s interview with Donald Trump certainly produced several stories (his plans for two UK trips this year, his criticism of May’s Brexit tactics, his extraordinarily confused views of climate change, how he lavishes praise on Macron more than May). Morgan’s whole mission seemed to be to show how the US President had been much misunderstood, even if that meant failing to robustly scrutinise his answers or challenge him on basic facts (as in polar ice caps melting or asking why he had retweeted Britain First without checking facts). Morgan suggested Trump was the one who had ‘driven out’ ISIS from Iraq and Syria, even though Obama had started the strategy.
Yet Morgan’s framing of each of his questions, just like Fox News’ coverage, at least did us all a favour in showing just why Trump is popular with many US voters. The President’s simple, direct messages on strong borders and bloke-in-a-bar worldview were on display for a British audience. And it’s true that Trump predicted before our referendum “because of trade, but mostly immigration, Brexit is going to be a big upset”. And as unpalatable as it will be to many, British politicians would be wise not to ignore his claim that “I get so much fanmail from people in your country. They love my sense of security. They love what I’m saying about many different things”. That doesn’t mean to say he won’t face a massive protests when he visits this year, but it does show why he said “I don’t care” about people who oppose him.
5. AYE, ROBOT
Pro-Brexit cities in the North and Midlands will be hit-hardest by job losses to automation, according to research published by the think tank Centre For Cities. Urban centres such as Sunderland, Mansfield, Stoke and Blackburn are predicted to lose as many as two in five (29%) jobs to robots and automation by 2030. Wealthy and often Remain-voting cities in the South East, meanwhile, such as Oxford and Cambridge, face losing a comparably low 13% and are best-placed to reap the benefits of new industries.
Another correlation, though not a causation, spotted this weekend is this map showing Pret a Manger shop locations almost exactly match Remain voting areas. And speaking of the north, keep an eye on Labour MP Dan Jarvis’s application to become South Yorkshire’s directly elected mayor. In case you missed it, we reported on Friday night that the man once thought of as a future Labour leader is firmly focused on getting a ‘Yorkshire-wide’ metro-mayor.