1. MOGGING THE LIMELIGHT
During the EU referendum of 2016, Brexiteers were very vocal in saying what they didn’t like about the EU, without setting out a detailed plan for what they would put in its place. Getting out or staying in were famously the only two choices on the ballot paper. And two years on, it is opposition not proposition that still has the upper hand in our Brexit future. To coin a phrase, nothing has changed.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group of backbench Eurosceptics have delayed publication of their own plans for Brexit. Yet a different kind of Moggy, the ‘dead cat’ strategy (you say something so outrageous that it’s all people focus on, like plonking a deceased feline on a table during dinner) was deployed by Boris Johnson this weekend. His Mail on Sunday article, comparing Theresa May’s Chequers deal to a ‘suicide vest’ strapped around the UK, seemed deliberately designed to distract the world from not only his alleged adultery and impending divorce, but also from the absence of a detailed alternative. It had the added bonus of showing that Johnson, not Rees-Mogg, was the leading Brexiteer in the referendum and wants to be the top dog today.
Mogg, Boris, David Davis and co will probably unveil their plans in coming weeks, but in many ways they know they don’t need to. Their numbers (ranging from 40 to 80 MPs), combined with Labour’s opposition to Chequers in its current form, means that May’s plans currently look doomed to fail in Parliament. That’s why talk of a lack of support for a leadership challenge is a sideshow: by voting down her Brexit deal, the wreckers can wreck May’s career without any formal vote of confidence. If her plans are defeated in the Commons, the assumption is she’d take the pearl-handled revolver and say ‘I’m done’.
What if No.10 tries to turn the Chequers deal into a confidence vote? In the crazy state of our current politics, it’s perfectly possible MPs could vote down Chequers yet May would instantly win a confidence vote as backbenchers don’t want to be seen bringing down their PM, or triggering a general election. With a majority of Parliament against a ‘no deal’ exit, an extension of Article 50 could be May’s only option. An unholy mess? You bet it is.
Still, May can at least be heartened by the way two of the big players who arguably led to the Brexit vote – the Daily Mail and the EU27 – today seem to be on her side. In its leader column, the post-Paul Dacre Mail describes Johnson as ‘reckless’ and hints again that Chequers is worth sticking with. The FT also reports the European Commission is set to hand Michel Barnier a new mandate to close a deal with May in time for this autumn. Note that last week he didn’t tell MPs Chequers was ‘dead in the water’. He said instead May’s trade plans were not acceptable ‘as they are’.
Should a leadership election take place, watch out for Sajid Javid. His response on Marr to Johnson’s suicide vest remarks were a model of restraint, almost Prime Ministerial. He wanted to see ‘measured language’ (like his), but defended Boris against the charge of Islamophobia. I’m told that Javid has so much support that he would almost certainly be on any ballot paper sent out to the wider membership, whereas Boris still lacks the MPs he needs to do the same.
Nicky Morgan on the Today programme said Boris ‘knew exactly what he was doing’ by deploying such ‘incendiary language’ – raising his profile as the chief rebel Brexiteer. Yet I was struck by how conciliatory she was towards Chequers, unlike some of her Remainer colleagues, saying while it was ‘not perfect’ she and others had a job to ‘support the government’. She also said there was ‘a majority in Parliament’ for a Norway-style deal. That may be so, but it’s far from clear that Labour would back one, given it would prefer to see the chaos of a Tory leadership challenge and a possible general election.
Morgan writes for ConHome that next month’s Tory conference speech has to kill off the Maybot – but only in style, not in person: “We need to see the Prime Minister who danced and smiled in South Africa delivering it – not the PMQs version”. But Boris knows his can-can on the fringe will get the crowd on its feet. With or without an alternative plan. Today, we are exactly 200 days from Brexit, and we still have no clear idea what it will eventually look like.
2. DOG DAY AFTERNOON
It wasn’t so much as a dead cat but a dead dog strategy that some MPs think was in play within Labour yesterday. Left Twitter denounced Chuka Umunna after he urged Jeremy Corbyn to ‘call off the dogs’ and protect Labour MPs facing criticism for speaking out about anti-semitism. As Corbyn supporters claimed that party members were being compared literally to dogs, Umunna’s backers and others hit back that John McDonnell and Corbyn had used the phrase over the years in a purely metaphorical sense and that it all felt like a deliberate smokescreen. ‘Running dogs of capitalism’ is a Mao-era insult but maybe I’m just showing my age.
Stephen Kinnock launches his new book Spirit of Britain this morning and he’s put out some lines ahead of it. “Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis and initial reluctance to believe the evidence that Russia was behind the Salisbury poisoning each point to deeper concerns about the so called ‘Hard Left’ worldview that is held by, a significant minority in our party,” he says. “We need to eradicate the belief that any enemy of Western capitalism is a friend of ours, that the world is run by a cabal of Jewish financers, and that NATO is a warmongering junta. These views are alienating swathes of voters across the country, not least in our heartlands.”
This afternoon, MPs will be working out just how they approach tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting in the Commons – with Jeremy Corbyn scheduled to be the key speaker. Rather than a debate about canine semantics, will we get anything new from him on whether he intends to revive his controversial, longer statement to the NEC on freedom of speech on Israel and Palestine? The NEC clearly had doubts about that statement and it was not put to a vote, welcoming it merely as one ‘contribution’ to the debate. But will Corbyn allow the new NEC after this month to revive the issue rather than draw a line under it? Just as importantly, will he preview party conference with a form of words on a Brexit referendum that will keep all wings of his party happy?
3. COMPUTER SAYS NO
Only last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was pushing plans to use new tech to transform the NHS. Today, we report on a huge IT project blunder that has sparked a ‘serious incident’ within the health service. Tens of thousands of patients have been discharged from hospital without their local GPs being notified, an error that could have left them open to serious harm or risk.
The East and North Herts NHS Trust has launched an investigation after the failures involving the Lorenzo patient record system, a project that has a controversial history and is supplied by a private US tech giant DXC. One GP locally tells me that their big concern is that in 1,000 of the cases the patient has since died. The Trust says there is ‘no evidence’ that deaths were linked to the blunder but it pointedly doesn’t rule it out. “This position will be kept under review whilst the incident investigation continues,” it states.
Labour’s Jon Ashworth, who is also today highlighting ‘fire sales’ of NHS assets, tells us that the IT failure is “staggering”. “Let’s be clear, this is an absolute scandal and there are now serious questions for the technology company who provide this IT and for NHS bosses too. If a Serious Incident was reported in July why are we only learning about this now? Why was Parliament not informed?” Local Tory MP Stephen McPartland tells me: “I was aware there had been issues with the IT, but nothing at this level. It is shocking.” There are other trusts around the country using the same Lorenzo system. Expect more on this today.
4. SECURITY ALERT
Sajid Javid has ordered a review of frontline policing and it sounds like he needs to come up with some answers quickly. Gavin Thomas, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, will warn tomorrow that many areas of the police service in England and Wales are “on the verge of crisis” because fewer staff are working longer. And today the Guardian reports the Metropolitan Police is ditched 36,000 investigations into serious crimes such as sexual offences, violent attacks and arson, within hours of them being reported.
The value and bravery of our police will be underscored today as the inquests begin into the five victims of the Westminster terror attack last year by Khalid Mahsood. The security threat has not gone away, with a man arrested last month after crashing his car outside Parliament. Another man wearing a camouflage jacket managed to jump the Commons security fence only last week.
5. BOUNDARY SHIFT
What will preoccupy most MPs today is the publication of the final Boundary Commission review that aims to carry out David Cameron’s plan to slash the number of Commons seats from 650 to 600. Labour is set to vote against the changes (not least as the review may cost it around 20 seats at the next election), but No.10 has been pleased at the DUP’s own warmer noises about the Northern Ireland review. Arlene Foster’s party has accused Sinn Fein of ‘hyperbole’ in its criticism of the local seat adjustments.
But will it ever happen? Backbenchers like Peter Bone have already made ominous noises about voting down the changes. With prominent Brexiteers like David Davis, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel due to see their seats made marginal or abolished altogether, is this one more unnecessary fight with May’s unhappy troops? Ministers had planned to put it all to the vote next month, but there was a real risk this could turn into the first Brexit rebellion by proxy. Last week Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith quietly told the Public Bill Committee that it would take ‘months’ to prepare the necessary Parliamentary order. The can has been kicked down the road, yet again. At least until after the Brexit vote.
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