1. TIME MACHINE
The countdown clock is ticking on Brexit and Theresa May. But it’s also getting louder for Tory MPs who really do think it’s ‘now-or-never’ to replace the Prime Minister. Pressure is undoubtedly ratcheting up on May, and her Commons statement on the EU summit this afternoon will be a key test. Her critics are running out of time too and their reaction to that statement is just as important as whatever she says.
Backbencher Andrew Bridgen claimed on LBC this morning that the 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of confidence in the PM would be in by the end of this week. Many of Bridgen’s colleagues see him as a blowhard who undermines their case. And yesterday’s anonymously violent language from another MP, about sticking a knife into May and ‘twisting it’, undoubtedly backfired.
Still, Bridgen is right to point out that time is of the essence. Under Tory rules, once a vote of confidence has been won, another one can’t be held for another year. That timetable is why some backbenchers who had thought May would comfortably win such a vote are now suggesting that she is facing a much bigger problem. “There’s a growing feeling of ‘oh, let’s get this over with, otherwise she’ll have another year to make a mess of it’,” one senior Brexiteer tells me. The mantra of many Leave voters about the UK’s removal from the EU - “can we just get on with it?” - is now the mantra of several MPs about May’s removal from No.10.
And the timetable and nature of Parliament’s vote on Brexit is what has really upset several backbenchers: this idea that there’s a take-it-or-leave-it, my-deal-or-no-deal choice being rammed through by May at the end of this year, with little time to change it. Those Remainer Tories terrified of no deal may well just lob in their leadership letters as a way to hit the ejector button before it’s too late. Downing Street knows that if it can somehow hammer out a deal (and that needs either the UK or EU or both to compromise on the Irish border), it may be in a position to tell Parliament: “Look, this is the best deal you’re going to get from us and from Merkel, Macron and co, so it really is this or no deal”. If the EU27 trumpet the deal, Tory Remainers and Labour really will be in a difficult position. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said yesterday it’s “just not credible” for Parliament to try to get May to go back and renegotiate.
Cabinet ministers are running out of time too. “As soon as the 48 letters go in, everybody still in Cabinet is tainted,” one former minister tells me. The Telegraph has the scoop that Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey told May in a conference call that she was ‘devastated’ by the idea of a longer Brexit transition period. However, is she so ‘devastated’ that she will resign? On the Today programme, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said “we are not a set of clones we don’t always agree on absolutely everything”. He then added “As a Brexiteer but also a free trader, if there’s a short bridge required [to get a deal] I’d be happy to contemplate it”. Grayling also tried to play hardball with France, admitting they would reinstate ‘some’ controls in a no-deal outcome, but warning that “other ports are looking for opportunities to take business from Calais”.
Many pre-cooked ‘big’ Parliamentary moments often turn into anti-climax. May could get a kicking today from some backbenchers over the transition during her Commons statement, but without any big beast interventions (I understand David Davis, and possibly Boris Johnson, will stay away from the event) she will live to die another day. Cabinet tomorrow may be again avoid any decision-making and resignations, and even the 1922 Committee on Wednesday could pass by without a major blow-up. One senior Tory tells me the real trigger for more leadership letters will come in the next fortnight if the EU announces there is no November summit. Dominic Raab said yesterday we need a deal by ‘the end of November’. That’s the deadline that is most focusing the minds of her friends and enemies alike.
2. ROGUE NATION?
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has claimed that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in a “rogue operation” by the country’s intelligence agents. But the real question for Donald Trump is whether the kingdom itself is a rogue nation under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi’s foreign ministry, which last week tweeted that reports of Khashoggi’s murder were ‘lies’, has now tweeted that King Salman and the CrownPrince ‘extend condolences to the family of Jamal Khashoggi’.
Tomorrow’s ‘Davos in the Desert’ investment conference in Riyadh is now boycotted by many politicians and big corporations (so much so that it’s had to pull a speaker list from its website). German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday announced that arms exports to Saudi “can’t take place in the current circumstances”. The joint statement between the UK, Germany and France yesterday said the murder was ‘unacceptable and of utmost concern’. That contrasted with the White House’s less condemnatory statements, but be in no doubt that Trump is the one who holds the real power here, if he wants to use it.
Turkish President Erdogan, reeling from his own spats with the US, is expected on Tuesday to reveal his country’s details of the killing. Note that Turkey’s intel was first leaked to American papers, and yesterday the Saudi foreign minister appeared on FoxNews to get his message across. What gets Trump’s and the Republicans’ attention is crucial. Which is why the most ominous news for Mohammed bin Salman was from Senator Bob Corker, who said US intelligence pointed to his authorisation of the murder. “We obviously have intercepts from the past that point to involvement at a very high level,” Corker said. Senator Rand Paul added: “I’m certain the crown prince was involved and directed this. I think he will have to be replaced. I don’t think sanctions go far enough.” Will Corker and Paul end up being rogue voices? My guess is they will.
3. RACIST AIR
Ryanair still has some big questions to answer over the way it allowed a racist passenger to remain on a flight after verbally abusing an elderly black woman. Our reporter Nadine White yesterday talked to the pensioner’s daughter and she revealed her mum was part of the Windrush generation. The trip to Barcelona was meant to lift Mrs Gayle’s spirits as she approached the anniversary of her husband’s death. Instead, the flight home became a nightmare. Social media often, rightly, gets a bad name for spreading fake news. But in this case, thanks to a phone video shot by passenger David Lawrence, it helped expose this awful incident to millions.
The airline says: “We will be taking this matter further, and disruptive or abusive behaviour like this will result in passengers being banned from travel”. But Labour MP Karl Turner, a barrister and former Shadow Attorney General, pointed out that the racist passenger may ‘get away with it’ in legal terms. Because Ryanair is registered in Dublin, prosecution is difficult as the offence took place on the ground in Spain, he says. “If this incident had happened on an alternative airline under ‘British Control’ or it was already ‘in flight’ to the UK the prosecuting authorities could have prosecuted.”
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling this morning told BBC Radio 4: “What we saw was totally unacceptable. The fact is that race abuse of that kind is a crime. And if a crime is committed it should be dealt with appropriately. So therefore I would hope that, notwithstanding what took place on that day, that the police would want to take action in such an extraordinarily unacceptable case.” But can or will Essex Police (the flight landed in Stansted) take the action he suggests?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch two dogs getting friendly, then getting nervous. Love the caption: ‘When you hear a parent’s key in the door’.
4. MISS THE SPEAKER
The House of Commons Commission, the most senior body running its affairs, meets this Wednesday to discuss the independent report into Westminster bullying and harassment. John Bercow, who usually chairs the Commission, will allow a lay member Jane McCall to chair the meeting instead. Pressure is piling on Bercow after HuffPost carried claims by former clerk Libby Bradshaw that the Speaker called her ‘a little girl’ when he could not find the envelope he was looking for. Labour’s Jess Philips said yesterday it was time for him to resign and unions are warning of possible strikes if the Commission fails to act. Crucially, will the Commission swiftly set up a new system to consider ‘historic’ allegations like those against Bercow?
5. ALL THE SINGLE PAYMENTS
One of the most controversial yet most overlooked aspects of Universal Credit is that it is paid as a single payment to couples living under the same roof. This ends years of a system of paying ‘family allowance’ (later income support) to mothers to give them an independent income. Today, the Home Affairs Committee calls for the forthcoming Domestic Abuse bill to scrap single payments as they make life worse for those whose partners use financial coercion and control in their relationship. Scotland is running a series of split-payment pilots and Yvette Cooper’s committee want the rest of the UK to follow its lead.
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