Anyone bored of the Brexit story will no doubt roll their eyes at yet another claim that this week is a crunch week. But the next eight days will be the last chance both the UK and EU have to arrange a special November summit later this month. There’s been an intense round of engagement at political and official level. Although (as the Times reports) the Cabinet may not be asked tomorrow to sign off the PM’s latest proposals, Theresa May is expected to give ministers a crucial update on the last push for a deal.
With most other issues sorted, the main sticking point for the Cabinet Brexiteers is still Northern Ireland. And here’s where Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is using all his leverage, alongside Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. Raab is said to have infuriated his Irish counterparts in a meeting last week in which he suggested the UK could unilaterally pull out of any deal to keep the Irish border open, with three months’ notice. De facto DPM David Lidington flew out a few days later to smooth things over, and in the process effectively ‘contradicted’ Raab, the Telegraph’s impeccably connected Peter Foster reports.
This morning at 7.37am, Irish foreign minister (and himself a deputy PM, don’t forget) Tweeted his defiance. “The Irish position remains consistent and v clear that a ‘time-limited backstop’ or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU. These ideas are not backstops at all + don’t deliver on previous UK commitments.” That word ‘never’ is the most striking one. Never is a hell of a red line, proving that Dublin can be as resolute as the DUP when it comes to borders. It’s bonfire night here in the UK and Brexiteers are not averse to plotting, nor to talking up the treasonous threats of Irish and EU threats to Parliamentary sovereignty.
Which is why the most intriguing story of the day is in the FT, which says that Raab has written to May formally asking her to back his unilateral break clause plan. “It’s the sort of letter that could be leaked at a later stage to try to show that he was pushing for a tough stance, but that his advice was ignored,” one source says. That sounds very ominous indeed. If May keeps alive the EU’s own ‘backstop’ plan for Northern Ireland without any break clause, Raab could well quit, and Cox along with him. He could rally a large chunk of backbench Brexiteers (could we call them ‘the Dominican Order’?) and the DUP, behind him too. Many Leave voters in Britain will want to know why we can’t as a sovereign nation unilaterally pull out of any plan we like after Brexit. The EU will counter ‘sure, you can do that, but there are inevitable consequences’.
Even if Raab somehow agrees to a Lidington-style compromise on wording on the Irish border, some Brexiteers are too far gone. Boris Johnson (who has a Sun article saying May’s plan is ‘a stinker’) and David Davis now sound so implacably opposed to May’s plans that it’s hard to see how they can credibly back down from their own words. That’s why some in No10 still hope that a hardcore of Tory rebels can be squeezed down to single figures, and can in turn cancelled out by Labour MPs who are so appalled by ‘no deal’ that they will reluctantly back May’s compromise plan.
Caroline Flint has been vocal on this, and last night on ‘The Westminster Hour’ Lisa Nandy also gave a strong hint she would follow suit, saying “all MPs” should look at the deal “with an open mind”. While she stressed that May “hasn’t begun to understand how to build a majority” across the parties, Nandy said the PM’s customs proposal “would be a really big piece of the jigsaw for Labour and something that we ought to consider”. That’s some comfort for No.10. But in the next few days, it’s Dominic Raab who seems to hold May’s fate, and Brexit’s fate, in his hands.
Philip Hammond is before the Treasury Select Committee to discuss the Budget around 4.30pm. In the wake of Tracey Crouch’s resignation, MPs may want to push him particularly on the timetable of a planned crackdown on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). The consistent line from the PM (in her own curt response to Crouch) and the Treasury has been that there is no six month ‘delay’. Yet on BBC Radio 5Live last night, Tory MP Philip Davies (a big backer of the betting industry) appeared to confirm the plans were due to start next April, but Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright was either overruled or changed his mind.
Crouch herself has repeatedly said the expectation was that April 2019 would be the start date and Wright confirmed to MPs that the loss of taxes from the machines was part of the consideration. Wright’s predecessor Matt Hancock was a strong supporter of the reform and, I understand, was also expecting next Spring to be the time FOBT maximum stakes would be slashed from £100 to £2. He also wrote to the industry this year to say there would be a ‘period of transition’, but was that six months from the Budget announcement or a whole year? The Health Secretary is out and about today pushing his ‘preventive’ health plans for the NHS, so maybe he can give us more details.
On Radio 4 last night, Foreign Office minister Mark Field stuck to the line that ‘a little’ delay was worth it. “My own view is that if you get 85% of what you want, declare it a victory and walk away”. Well, Crouch undoubtedly walked away. As I said on Friday, the PM’s PPS Seema Kennedy would be a natural replacement, given her close involvement in the loneliness agenda. Maybe the vacancy will be left open until after the PM navigates the Brexit vote? It’s not unknown for ministerial jobs to be unfilled for a few weeks these days.
MPs stage a full debate today on the Dame Laura Cox report into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons. I wonder if any of them will dare use Parliamentary privilege to name some colleagues as having cases to answer? It’s one thing for Peter Hain to ‘out’ Philip Green, but will anyone use similar legal protection to publicly identify fellow MPs? That’s possible, though it’s more likely that anonymised accounts (and don’t forget this affects several political parties) will be raised.
One anonymous account will certainly feature on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show today. The programme has trailed overnight the testimony of ‘Katie’, a junior member of staff who reveals that ‘dealing with abuse is part of the job’. She says one MP is well-known for taking “great joy” in intimidating junior female staffers, by stroking their hair and touching their lower back in some kind of “game”. Some MPs showed her and her colleagues “complete disdain” because they were not of “the same social ranking”.
The Cox report covered allegations of abuse of clerks and other staff directly employed by the Commons. But in yet another quirk of the Palace of Westminster, those who work in MPs’ private offices are employed by the MPs themselves. The Indy had the scoop this weekend that a “bigger and more explosive” inquiry is set to be announced by Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom into allegations made by MPs’ researchers and others. Today’s debate would be the natural place to make that announcement, but Leadsom may wait until tomorrow to offer full details. The inquiry may also look at the cases of MPs and peers who have themselves suffered at the hands of colleagues.
Arron Banks confirmed his reputation as a quixotic character on Marr yesterday, not least with his announcement that if he’d had his time over again, he’d oppose Brexit. Claiming the Government was ‘selling out’, he said: “I think we would have been better to probably Remain and not unleash these demons.” So, Arron Banks, the ‘bad boy of Brexit’, would now prefer a burgundy passport to a blue one? It’s politics, Jim, but not as we know it.
The more serious takeaway from the Marr grilling was Banks’ steadfast refusal to reveal the source of an £8m donation made by Rock Services. He claimed that the firm had “all sorts of revenue”, though he was vague about its status and contradicted his previous statements to Parliament that this was just a shell company. On one thing he was clear though. “There was no Russian money and no interference of any type. I want to be absolutely clear about that,” he said. It’s now up to the National Crime Agency to do see if any of that is actually true or not.
Tomorrow, the DCMS Select Committee takes evidence from the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission. The ICO is also due to publish a new report on the Cambridge Analytica affair. What also caught my eye in recent days was the BBC Russian Service reporting that hackers had compromised and published private messages from at least 81,000 Facebook users’ accounts (mostly from Russian users but some in the UK too). The hackers say their information is separate from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
The tributes to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the former Cabinet Secretary who died this weekend at the age of 56, were as heartfelt as they were numerous. Told of the news live on air on SkyNews yesterday, Yvette Cooper summed up the sadness felt across the political spectrum for a man who loyally served Labour, Tory and Coalition governments.
On Radio 4 last night, his predecessor Sir Gus O’Donnell pointed out that Jeremy was dedicated to public service right to the end. “This a man while he’s having chemo, who is on his mobile when he shouldn’t, texting people to say ‘How are you getting on with this, what’s the blockage, how can I help?’”
One tribute that was particularly moving was from Zoe Conway, whose late husband Chris Martin was Principal Private Secretary to David Cameron before he too died of cancer, at the age of 42. “When Chris died, Sir Jeremy’s humanity and compassion shone through. He wrote the most beautiful condolence letter of all.” That humanity and sense of public service, as well as the undoubted impeccable independence of our civil service, is too often forgotten in our currently fractured political debate.
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