1. CAVEAT EMPTY?
When, or rather if, Theresa May hammers out a Brexit deal with Brussels, it will be stuffed full of caveats that both sides will use to sell the plans to their respective home audiences. From fishing to level playing fields, from citizens’ rights to the divorce bill, the Withdrawal Agreement and the future UK-EU framework could well be shot through with small print. And many insiders expect that the small print, in the form of a long and complicated annexe to the Withdrawal Agreement, will be at its smallest and most complex on the issue of Northern Ireland and continuing customs and regulatory links to the EU. The hope of some of May’s allies is that the annexe will be so complicated that no Cabinet minister will oppose it outright.
But the Northern Ireland issue remains a key stumbling block, not just among Cabinet Brexiteers but for the EU. As HuffPost first reported on Friday night (followed by the Sunday papers), the EU has rejected the UK’s own key caveat - an ‘independent arbitration’ proposal for working out who would oversee the ‘backstop’ plans. The EU made clear that it would be legally impossible to subject EU laws to anything other than the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The pushback from Brussels may now tip Attorney General Geoffrey Cox into advising ministers that the hoped-for compromise plan is no longer viable. “The EU’s stance makes his job a lot easier,” one pro-Leave Cabinet minister told me.
The EU’s rejection of the plan has certainly emboldened the Brexiteers, though they talk not about quitting but about the PM having to come round to their view. I understand Dominic Raab believes it’s his job ‘to help the Prime Minister do the right thing’ (which is both wonderfully supportive and gently menacing at the same time), and is an echo of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s own phrasing. Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom made a significant intervention yesterday on Pienaar’s Politics on BBCRadio 5Live, saying “the UK cannot be held against its will in a customs arrangement”. Others think that there are indeed complex but sellable ways round the problem, with both the ECJ and UK Supreme Court having separate roles (see this fascinating Twitter thread with various EU legal eagles).
‘Caveat emptor’ is uppermost in the minds of Brexiteers about the Chequers deal, but the BBC suggests today that there is some buyers’ remorse among even former Remain-supporting ministers who attended the key country house meeting on May’s compromise plan in July. Sajid Javid described elements of the ‘common rulebook’ as ‘very worrying’. Still, the fact remains that none of these worries were enough to prompt resignations other than those of David Davis and Boris Johnson. (As I’ve written previously, the real Chequers breakthrough came in February when an inner circle of the Cabinet signed up to EU ‘alignment’).
Michel Barnier may give us an update on the EU position today, but without any progress on the ‘fabulously complicated’ (copyright one Whitehall source) solution to Northern Ireland, tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting may have nothing to discuss. Some in No.10 say that losing a special November summit is ‘liveable with’, and that December may just have to be when it’s all wrapped up. Leaving it late would pile the pressure on MPs to vote for the deal to avoid a no-deal scenario. But it would also make May’s own position very precarious indeed. As former Cabinet minister John Whittingdale told Radio 4 last night: “If the deal doesn’t get through Parliament it is almost impossible to see how she can continue.” The next 48 hours will tell us just how bold the PM wants to be, and how late she wants to leave it for all those caveats to be drafted.
2. TABLE MOUNTING
As Tory divisions reach breaking point, Labour has somehow contrived to create a split story about its own ranks. Remember the tortuous Brexit compromise motion passed by the party at its conference in September? It ensured one option was a referendum on the final deal, with the possibility of staying in the EU very much not ‘off the table’. Well, this weekend Jeremy Corbyn let slip that he personally felt the referendum idea was on the floor.
First, there was his weekend interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, when he was asked if he would stop Brexit if he could. “We can’t stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered.” Then Emily Thornberry popped up on Marr to insist a second referendum had not been ruled out (“an injection of democracy was needed” and that “all options remain on the table”). Then Corbyn is asked by Channel 4 News if he could ever agree with Jo Johnson’s call for a new referendum, and replies: “No, not really. The referendum took place. The issue now has to be how we bring people together.”
It took party officials to last night insist, once more, that the party policy was the one agreed at the conference - not the one hinted at by the leader of the party in interviews. And this morning Keir Starmer had an even blunter message, telling SkyNews: “Brexit can be stopped.” That’s quite a thing to put back on the table. Starmer added this on Today too: “As far as saying the referendum happened, he’s right about that”. That sounded to some like sarcasm, to others just a statement of fact. Relations between Starmer and the leader’s office have been very close in recent weeks, but today’s flat-out contradiction was a logical consequence of that compositing meeting in conference hall Room B in Liverpool in September.
Corbyn should get credit for being candid about his own position (which is obviously shared by John McDonnell too), not least because he’s reflecting the reality of the splits in the Parliamentary Labour Party. One source told me last week there simply isn’t a Parliamentary majority for a new referendum, because a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs just don’t want one - and because they estimate those Labour numbers probably outweigh the Remainer Tories who do. That theory may well be put to the test in coming weeks. We have a report from Stoke, where plenty of Labour Leave voters tell us how sick they are of calls for another referendum.
3. RESPECT DUE
French President Emmanuel Macron used the 100th Armistice commemoration yesterday to warn both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the dangers of nationalism. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying, ‘Our interests first’ . . . we erase what a nation holds dearest . . . its moral values…Old devils are re-emerging, new ideologies are manipulating religions and history is threatening to return to its tragic path”. It was a suitably solemn reminder, not least as a month ago Trump said all he wanted was for the US to be “treated with respect, so in that sense I’m absolutely a nationalist, and I’m proud of it”.
Theresa May’s absence from the Paris gathering was very notable indeed, sending her de facto deputy David Lidington instead. She could have swapped with Lidington and got him to deputise at the Cenotaph in London (the Queen takes precedence at the Cenotaph anyway), ensuring the UK was represented at the most senior political level at the event in France. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear a navy raincoat rather than a black overcoat caused some debate yesterday (critics felt it showed a telling thoughtlessness, supporters pointed to his solemn bow). Yet it’s not impossible to imagine the media vilifying a Prime Minister Corbyn if he’d opted out of representing the UK at such an historic gathering of the major players in the 1914-18 conflict.
Respect or disrespect is often in the eye of the beholder. (Recall the r-word was invoked by Theresa May after the Salzburg summit disaster: “I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same”). And Trump was accused of disrespecting America’s war dead by failing to attend its military cemetery event on Saturday – because of the heavy rain. British defence minister Tobias Ellwood tweeted: “As a duel [sic] national I’m sorry to read this. Rain was a regular feature on the Western Front. Thankfully it did not prevent our brave heroes from doing their job.” The White House cited the fact that rain grounded the President’s helicopter, but plenty of Bush and Obama era officials pointed out a motorcade could have been arranged instead.
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4. TAKING AN AGE
Like Brexit, social care of our elderly a huge public policy issue that ultimately requires consensus and compromise. But like Brexit (and of course because of it), it’s an issue where the can keeps getting kicked down the road. Several Whitehall insiders think that it’s likely the long-expected green paper on this may slip to the new year. However the Times today reports Health Secretary Matt Hancock is ‘attracted’ to an “age tax” on the over-40s, similar to a Japanese model of paying for social care with a special national insurance fund. With a cross-party report this summer suggesting a similar plan, maybe just maybe, it’s a runner.
5. RENT ASUNDER
Council tenants on Universal Credit owe an average of £663 in rent, two and a half times that of those on the old housing benefit system, according to Freedom of Information responses to the BBC’s Panorama. In Flintshire in North Wales, one of the first areas in the UK to roll-out the system, the average arrears are six times higher. Meanwhile, HuffPost reveals todaythat ex-prisoners are being pushed into poverty and lured back into a life of crime by the UC delays in payment. Our Aasma Day quotes the South Liverpool Foodbank coordinator recalls one man who had been recently released from jail and he hadn’t eaten for two days. “He opened a can of corned beef from his food parcel right in front of us and started eating it.”
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