1. JUNGLE DRUMS
Snakes in the grass, divided camp loyalties and big beasts on the prowl will be gripping the nation for the next few weeks. Yes, our favourite political reality TV show, ‘I’m Pretty Brexity, Get Me Outta Here’, is now underway. It will be mid-December before we find out just who is crowned Queen or King of the Westminster Jungle. Right now, for many Leave-voting Tory MPs, Theresa May’s Brexit deal is certainly as unpalatable as eating a kangaroo’s testicle. The question is just how many will swallow it in the hope of securing the bigger prize at a later date.
The most immediate problem for the PM is of course that threatened vote of no confidence, and whether the threshold of 48 letters from MPs will be reached. Tory backbench 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady confirmed yesterday that the magic number had not arrived. The Sun reports Brexiteers saying they are six short of the total (25 have gone public, 17 have made private pledges), yet after last week’s unfounded boasts, few are relying on the European Research Group’s powers of prediction.
One senior Brexiteer told me last night: “The Parliamentary Conservative Party is called the most sophisticated electorate in the world - but it’s also the one that lies the most.” It’s not impossible Brady will suddenly convene us all for an historic announcement on the steps of St Stephen’s entrance to the Commons. Yet you have to ask why any MP who hasn’t already submitted a letter would want to do so this week.
May herself is rolling out the hard sell of her deal, with a CBI speech this morning pushing the line that she really will provide the curbs on immigration that she thinks many Leave voters wanted. No.10 can be buoyed by the fact that a fair few people have expressed sympathy for her predicament. Even Eastenders actor Danny Dyer has told the Big Issue: “Theresa May, bless her, just got that job by default…Boris Johnson running around with his stupid haircut spouting bollocks…Farage, another prick in a suit who tapped into something…” But it’s hard votes, not sympathy, that May needs most. And they are in short supply.
2. DOING THE SPLITS
Yes, even if the vote of confidence threat fails to materialise this week, May’s real problem is of course the ‘meaningful vote’ due sometime next month on her deal. She was quite right when she told SkyNews that toppling her “is not going to make the negotiations any easier and it won’t change the parliamentary arithmetic”. With the DUP making ominous noises and more than 40 Tories ready to rebel, the arithmetic is truly awful. Things could get even worse when May finally pencils in the ‘XX’ to the ‘20XX’ final date for the end of the Brexit transition period. The EU has said it wants December 31, 2022 as that date. As that’s beyond our next general election, many Conservatives will see that as intolerable.
For May, losing the meaningful vote will in many ways be just as terminal, and as brutal, as losing a vote of confidence. One former Cabinet minister tells me they are convinced that the cold, hard logic of Article 50 is inescapable: there may well be a Commons majority against ‘no deal’, but there’s nothing the Commons can do to stop it. The ‘meaningful’ vote is not meaningful at all, the argument goes, because only a Government not Parliament can change tack on Brexit. Amendment after amendment could be passed to both the main motion and the Withdrawal Bill, but nothing would stop us from leaving the EU on March 31. It’s for that reason that some think David Davis or Dominic Raab, the two contenders who would want a ‘managed no deal’, could prove the most popular choice in any Tory leadership race.
Splits abound everywhere. Today, key Davis ally Andrew Mitchell tells the Times that toppling May would be as damaging as getting rid of Margaret Thatcher (others would counter that her regicide ensured the Tories actually won the 1992 election). I suspect Mitchell’s take is not exactly the view of DD himself. Meanwhile, claims that Davis and Raab could run on a joint ticket are unfounded, I’m told. It’s more likely that Michael Gove and Raab could somehow team up, though who would take the lead role is unclear. One thing is for sure: Davis and Boris Johnson have not come to any deal and in fact the pair of them are further part than ever before.
Boris has written a Telegraph article effectively suggesting that Gove and the other Brexiteers still in Cabinet are either dupes or cowards. He also ramps up the rhetoric with a clear eye on winning the DUP’s backing, talking of “the plot to amputate Northern Ireland and keep it in the EU”. The ‘famous Five’ left in the Cabinet (Gove, Grayling, Mordaunt, Fox, Leadsom) are divided on their tactics for improving the Brexit deal. Only Leadsom has so far hinted she could walk if the PM fails to unpick the Withdrawal Agreement, while Gove will wait until after the Commons vote. May was firm today that “the Withdrawal Agreement has been agreed in full”, but let’s see if the EU gives her a bit of wriggle room on the political declaration. Former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told Today: “There is almost no room for renegotiating the deal”. But he also added: “I don’t really understand what’s happening in London.”
3. OPPOSITION POSITION
A couple of opinion polls this weekend gave Labour a lead over the Tories for the first time in a while. Is it the Tory divisions or May’s Brexit deal itself that is to blame for her party’s loss of support? Loyalists will claim the splits have done most damage, Brexiteers will claim it’s the sell-out to the EU, but it could be both.
The great British public are unlikely to have read the 585 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement and they’d be in good company. Jeremy Corbyn made plain he hadn’t done so yesterday, though I suspect hundreds of MPs are in the same boat. To be fair to them, the document is a dense, legal text and there’s no shame in reading summaries of its main points. No one expects MPs, let alone the public, to read every word of the Red Book or the Office for Budget Responsibility Blue Book in order to pass a judgement on the Budget, for example. And Ken Clarke seemed to survive not having read the Maastrict Treaty after all.
As for Corbyn admitting yesterday he didn’t know how he’d vote in any second referendum, it was obvious he was simply trying to avoid committing to any answer (just as May has refused to say how she’d vote if the referendum was re-run). What was more significant was that he again kept alive the possibility of such a referendum. Corbyn will use his CBI speech today (watch for the Q&A) to suggest he could somehow negotiate a better deal with the EU in just a few months.
The more immediate issue for Corbyn allies is that all Labour MPs vote against May’s deal. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey blogs for HuffPost today that MPs should “hold their nerve, act for the people and vote down her plan”. That sounded like a direct challenge to backbenchers like Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell.
4. HI, IMPACT
It’s not that long ago (though it seems an age) since Jo Johnson quit the government. And we shouldn’t forget that Tory Remainers like him still have as much clout as Brexiteers when it comes to the PM’s wafer-thin majority. Minister Alistair Burt tweeted ominously yesterday that if May’s deal was voted down, Remainers could try to unpick the EU referendum. Tonight MPs get to vote on Chuka Umunna’s amendment to the Finance bill (the Indy splashes it) demanding the Treasury publish an impact assessment comparing the costs of May’s plans with not just no deal but also with staying in the EU. Some Remainer Tories will be wary of making life even more difficult for the PM right now, but tonight’s vote may come down to the DUP. If they abstain, it’s game on.
5. AMBER FLASHING RED
Just three days after her return to Cabinet, it’s Amber Rudd’s first Work and Pensions Questions in the Commons this afternoon. Many Tory MPs are hoping she can resurrect David Gauke’s knack for taking the sting out of the brief. Esther McVey secured billions more for Universal Credit and impressed some charities by softening the policy, yet her public image was so toxic that the message was a hard sell. Rudd will have to rebut the UN special rapporteur’s report on poverty, and could be asked about the BBC’s new report confirming Frank Field’s claim that Uni Credit is forcing some women to turn to sex work.
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